Bull Durham (1988)

23 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

1988’s “Bull Durham” could be taken as both a romantic comedy and a baseball movie, but the truth of the matter is that it knows more about baseball than it does about love. And that’s fine with me. It’s probably one of the very best baseball movies I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t merely have a clear intelligence of the game, but also the players’ mindset. And it would make sense—the movie was written and directed by former minor-league player Ron Shelton. His experience shows.

Consider, for example, the scene in which “Crash” Davis, playing for a minor-league team called the Durham Bulls (fictional team, I believe), first goes up to bat in this movie. A masterstroke in this scene—we hear his inner thoughts. He’s thinking of which pitch to take a swing at, but he’s also thinking about a woman he met the other night, and that’s breaking his concentration and practically driving him crazy.

And later in the movie, we also eavesdrop on the pitcher’s inner thoughts, struggling to find the right way to control his pitches. I should also mention that he’s been coached to breathe through his eyelids like lava lizards.

My favorite moment is the hilarious private conversation the players have on the mound during a game—one of the players needs a “live chicken” to lift the curse put on his glove and nobody else knows what to get as a wedding present for one of the players and a groupie (“Candlesticks always make a nice gift”).

This is some, fresh funny writing and there are a lot of scenes like those. It’s very funny, but also insightful.

But the movie isn’t just about baseball—it’s mainly about a romantic triangle. It begins as the Durham Bulls take in a rookie pitcher named LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) for the new season. LaLoosh has a fastball that can hit the strike zone…but only occasionally. There’s a very funny line said by one of the groupies, describing how LaLoosh pitches, right after a sexual encounter in the locker room—but I’m too much of a gentleman to type it for a family magazine.

Anyway, the Bulls hire veteran catcher “Crash” Davis (Kevin Costner), who has been in a lot of minor league teams for years, though never making it to the “Show” (the major leagues), to act as an on-field guide for LaLoosh. It’s not exactly a trusting relationship at first—when they first meet, they’re fighting over a woman they meet at the local bar.

The woman is named Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon) and she’s a lover of baseball and baseball players. She explains in an opening monologue that she’s tried “all the major religions, and most of the minor ones” but only believes in the “Church of Baseball.” She also states that there hasn’t been a ballplayer slept with her who didn’t have the best year of his career. She picks out the two more-promising players of the Durham Bulls this year—Crash and LaLoosh (whom she nicknames “Nuke”). Crash doesn’t give in, leaving the affair to Annie and “Nuke.”

But the problem is Annie is constantly on Crash’s mind.

As the movie progresses, Crash and Annie realize they have similar things in common—they want to help Nuke improve his game, and they can state in great detail the things they believe in and appreciate each other’s principles…more or less. Will this relationship develop into a heavy love affair? One knows there’s one waiting for them.

“Bull Durham” is a sports movie not about winning or losing, but about finding more off the field. It never really seems to matter whether the Durham Bulls are winning or losing. They play the games, they win, they lose, they hang out, and meanwhile there’s an affair between Nuke and Annie, and surprising sparks that fly between Annie and Crash. Things get more complicated when Nuke lets a winning streak go to his head and decides not to sleep with Annie again until the team loses.

All three actors—Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins—are excellent here. Costner, who at the time was proving his stardom with movies like “The Untouchables” and “No Way Out,” is playing a role that isn’t especially flashy and just plays it straight, making it more effective. Susan Sarandon is attractive and sexy, and her character Annie Savoy is more three-dimensional than you might think. She’s bright, complex, and just needs somebody to love. Tim Robbins is perfect as the goofy rookie pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh.

Let’s face it, though. With a romantic triangle like the one featured in “Bull Durham,” you’d see much more problems for them to face and eventually, everything would just fall apart. This is not the movie where that happens. Actually, maybe it would happen like that in reality, maybe it wouldn’t. But either way, when all is said and done, “Bull Durham” is a movie. In the movies, we like to believe that love can be found in the most non-fateful ways.

“Bull Durham” is as nonconventional as a sports movie can get. It doesn’t resort to overblown clichés in the baseball scenes. It knows what it’s talking about and it comes from a great screenplay from Ron Shelton, a man who learned from experience. “Bull Durham” is a grand slam.

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