“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I said to you that day in the condo.”
Okay, we have now come to the one “Wait— what?” of the Raimi filmography. His MUSIC OF THE HEART. We saw him completely switch up his style for his last movie, A SIMPLE PLAN, and it was obviously very different and more “normal” than anything he’d done previously. But it wasn’t totally out of the blue for him to make the leap from horror to dark suspense thriller. It had some overlap with the crime films by his friends the Coen Brothers, and it had a great role for Bridget Fonda, who had previously done a cameo in ARMY OF DARKNESS.
But for the love of God, where did FOR LOVE OF THE GAME come from? The answer he always gives is about the only answer possible: he likes baseball, he liked the script, he wanted to try something different. I knew that was what it was but I always figured it would be worth watching some day. “Some day” came 22 years after it was released (now), and I’m actually surprised that the only Raimi I noticed in it at all was Ted Raimi in a cameo as the doorman at a party. I figured there would at least be some cool shots of baseballs flying. The premise is that maybe-about-to-retire Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner, SIZZLE BEACH, U.S.A.) reflects on his failed relationship while trying to pitch a perfect game. You’d think there would be some attempt to experiment with different ways to show a pitch on film, as THE QUICK AND THE DEAD did with gun duels. But it’s not that kind of party.
Maybe it’s actually a problem that Raimi likes baseball so much. He doesn’t get bored looking at it. I guess the use of whip pans from the mound to the plate are effective. Otherwise about the only clever visuals I noticed were some shots like this, where the audience being out of focus I think represents him tuning them out to focus on the batter. I like that conceptually, but doesn’t it look like a cheap green screen shot?
It’s the end of a shitty season for the Tigers, with one last series against the Yankees. Billy’s arm has been hurting, and his pal/sidekick/catcher Gus (John C. Reilly, “Thug in Bar,” ABOVE THE LAW) doesn’t think he should risk injury for “a throwaway,” but Billy really wants to try to win it.
It’s an emotionally fraught time for Billy. His sometime-girlfriend Jane (Kelly Preston, SPACECAMP) didn’t show up for date night at the hotel, so he sat alone drinking sad champagne and mini Glenlivet bottles, watching tractor-pulling on TV. Then he was woken up in time to hear from the horse’s mouth that team owner Gary (Brian Cox, THE GLIMMER MAN) is selling the team and the new owner wants to trade him to the Giants. And then he finally saw Jane and she told him she’s moving to London to take a job editing a magazine.
There’s a pretty obvious solution here, that it will take the whole game/movie for him to figure out. Jane can’t stay with him because it’s no fun to be the girlfriend of a professional baseball player. “You, and the ball, and the diamond, you’re perfect. A perfectly beautiful thing,” she says. “You can win or lose the game all by yourself.” Seems like if he has a reason to ditch the ball and the diamond he could try to be more of a perfectly beautiful thing with her. If she lets him move to London with her.
The game itself is well shot, I suppose, just not Raimi-flashy. I got a little hyped when the camera went in close to document the various bat swings and stretches in the pre-batting ritual of a Yankee player (Texas Ranger turned actor Michael Papajohn), but that’s about as far as he goes. By the way, director of photography John Bailey (AMERICAN GIGOLO, CAT PEOPLE, MISHIMA) didn’t do any other Raimi movies. Costner may have brought him in, having worked with him on THE BIG CHILL and SILVERADO.
Mostly the movie is made of flashbacks interspersed throughout the game. Billy remembers meeting Jane when she had car trouble on the side of the road. He jiggles the engine and fixes it by accident, admitting he doesn’t even know what he did, and ends up inviting her to his game.
She’s a magazine writer, working an a piece about lip gloss for Elle. Could be the big one. They have a great time and fuck on the first date but then he has to leave town so she starts feeling like a groupie, and the next time they’re supposed to meet she makes him wait for hours then accosts him on the street with all her insecurities about it while dudes hound him for autographs. He eventually calms her down and at the end of the night she smiles and tells him “So, when you’re away, I’ll live my life, and you’ll live yours. And none of this stupid bullshit why-didn’t-you-call-me crap. And what you do when you’re not with me has nothing to do with me, and vice-versa. No questions asked. No worrying. No obsessing.” So of course she surprises him at his place when he’s with another woman and everybody gets hurt.
The relationship strengthens when Jane reveals she has a teenage daughter named Heather (Jena Malone, SUCKER PUNCH) who has run away and she needs his help. He finds Heather and gets her to come home with him on the team jet. There’s some odd dialogue where he drinks V8 and she says, “What is it with single men and V8 juice?” The “single men” apparently just refers to her dad, but I don’t know why she keeps calling it “V8 juice.”
Anyway the three play Monopoly and have Christmas together and bond, but after Billy injures his hand in a power tool accident (in which Raimi sadly doesn’t go crazy with the gore) they drift apart because she’s sensitive even about stuff like him calling his trainer “the most important person to me right now” and yet he starts saying actually hurtful stuff like “Don’t you get it? You make me feel distracted. You make me feel weak.”
As he’s remembering all this in the dugout and on the mound he’s realizing what a dumbass he was. And then realizing oh shit, nobody has gotten on base yet, this is shaping up to be a perfect game. And throughout all that we’ve also been cutting back to Jane, failing to leave town or avoid the game. Her cab driver listens to it on the radio, she asks him to turn it off (are you kidding me, lady?) and he correctly tells her no. Then her flight gets delayed and it’s playing on a TV at the airport bar. She starts to get defensive of Billy and invested in the game because of an asshat Yankees fan (Larry Joshua, THE BURNING) who is under the impression that strangers need to hear his baseball opinions spoken out loud. And then you know the true love is coming back when it’s time to board her flight and she decides to miss it to keep watching.
The corniest shit in the movie is watching the people watching the game. Not just Jane – we start seeing Heather (now attending USC) seeing the game on TV, getting teary-eyed.
The funniest one is this Yankees fan who is a reoccurring character throughout the game, yelling insults at Billy, but at the end he’s moved by all the triumph and baseball heroism and what not. (The guy at the airport bar doesn’t do the same face turn – he just gets mad.)
Honestly I think the movie could use more of that kinda stuff. I got a little chuckle from the team’s introduction, approaching their private jet wearing nice suits, walking toward the camera in slow motion, like astronauts.
Raimi could’ve gone further with that type of cornball Americana worshipfulness. Maybe that would be more fun, and a better use for the saccharine, at times even cheesy score by the normally great Basil Poledouris (CONAN THE BARBARIAN, IRON EAGLE, ROBOCOP).
A funny thing that never came up in Raimi’s movies before is having popular music on the soundtrack, mostly of the old people variety. You got Roy Orbison, Lyle Lovett, Trisha Yearwood, Jonny Lang covering “Paint It Black.” But also Semisonic, Morcheeba, Shaggy, “Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines,” and Santana featuring Eagle-Eye Cherry. Plus Chante Moore featuring JoJo Hailey singing a Diane Warren tune called “I See You In A Different Light” for the end credits. We didn’t get that in the EVIL DEADs.
FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is based on a short novel by Michael Shaara, whose 1974 book The Killer Angels had been the basis of GETTYSBURG. He died of a heart attack in 1988, but his son found the manuscript and had it published in 1991. The adaptation is by Dana Stevens, not the Slate critic but the writer of BLINK and CITY OF ANGELS. At the time she was married to Michael Apted, who had her do an uncredited rewrite on THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, making her the second woman writer on a James Bond movie (after Johanna Harwood, before Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She later did LIFE OR SOMETHING LIKE IT, an Angelina Jolie movie I only really know about because it was filmed in Seattle.
Stevens makes Jane neurotic and self-deprecating, which is annoying at times, but probly better than the idealized dream girl she could’ve been in a romance sports movie if a dude wrote it. I don’t find their attempts to stop second-guessing and just be in love all that compelling, but I will say there is one thing about Billy I find relatable. When faced with the big news that Jane is leaving the country, he says, “What can I say? I mean, tell me what to say.” And she says, “I can’t tell you, Billy.” That’s how bad I am in emotional talks. So I get that. But other than recognizing that part of him I don’t find much appeal in this Billy Chapel. Come to think of it he seems like a guy who would tell Madonna her show was “neat.” Maybe Madonna was right after all.
Before Raimi and Costner, the movie was almost made by Sydney Pollack and Tom Cruise. To get it made, Costner took a pay cut in exchange for director approval and final cut. But that deal was contingent on it being rated PG-13, which took cutting about 10 seconds of “humorous, obscenity-laced dialogue” (according to the L.A. Times) against Costner’s wishes. It apparently included the airport bartender calling the Yankees fan a motherfucker or something, and Jane saying something harsher than “I just don’t screw like that.” (I hope it was “I just don’t hump like that.”)
I wonder why Anchor Bay never came out with SAM RAIMI’S FOR LOVE OF THE GAME: THE MOTHERFUCKER EDITION?
Costner felt betrayed that Universal didn’t fight for those lines or allow an R-rating, so he cancelled most of his promotional appearances and complained about it in a Newsweek interview, angering the studio. Raimi defended Costner’s protectiveness, pointing out that it was a very personal movie to him, so much that he allowed them to use real home movies of him playing ball with his dad in the opening credits. (And after he sniffs his mitt, bringing back powerful memories.)
Years later on the Bill Simmons Podcast Costner said that the Yankees trainer he worked with got him to “take a little bit of stuff” and get “kind of juiced up” to deal with the pain of all the pitching he had to do. So maybe it was all roid rage.
I doubt the negative publicity was a factor, but the movie failed to make back its $50 million budget – by far the largest Raimi had ever had – at the box office. But it didn’t seem to hurt Raimi’s career. The main thing he seemed to get out of it was a relationship with J.K. Simmons (KUNG FU PANDA 3), who plays a grouchy pitching coach here and will appear in other Raimi movies we’ll be looking at soon.
I’m sorry to report that FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is the only Sam Raimi movie I didn’t enjoy much at all. It’s certainly competent, but shows little to no Raimi personality or style, and didn’t even seem to do it for the people who prefer normal movies like this to spookablasts.
Now that I’ve finally seen it, I do think the movie itself answers the question of “Why the fuck would Sam Raimi make this?” A big deal is made of Billy being 40 years old, which happens to be how old Raimi was (Costner was a little older). At the end Billy tells Jane his philosophy that “If you give something your all, everything you have, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you risked everything, put everything out there.” Which seems to be what Raimi was doing here. Billy comes to the conclusion that it’s time to leave behind his playboy selfishness and become A Grown Up, and I think Raimi too tried being A Grown Up by making this milquetoast romantic sports drama where the camera doesn’t even fly around. But I am happy to report from the future that he has never made a movie this square since. He put everything out there and then, thank God, he thought better of it.
Trivia: Jane’s flight is on “Oceanic Airways,” presumably related to the Oceanic Airlines from EXECUTIVE DECISION, later made famous in Lost. Also, Daniel Dae Kim plays the ER doctor. I guess that’s more of a credit than a piece of trivia.