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FOR LOVE OF THE GAME

by: Scott Renshaw

To paraphrase Garrett Morris as Chico Escuela from the old "Saturday Night Live," baseball been bery, bery good to Kevin Costner. Arguably his two strongest performances -- in two of his strongest films -- have come when he was dealing with baseball: BULL DURHAM, and FIELD OF DREAMS. There's something about Costner, some combination of his convincingly athletic build and his aw-shucks, laconic manner that makes him well-suited to tales of our peculiarly mythologized national pastime. It's only natural that he'd want to return to the diamond for a film like FOR LOVE OF THE GAME. Could he maintain his perfect batting average, even playing a non-hitting American League pitcher?

The short answer is yes, though it's more of a solid single than FIELD OF DREAMS' ground-rule double or BULL DURHAM's inside-the-park home run. Costner stars as Billy Chapel, a one-time great Detroit Tigers pitcher now 40 years old, staring down the end of a career and the end of a relationship. On the last day of a disappointing season -- the same day that his long-time girlfriend Jane (Kelly Preston) announces she's moving to London for a job as a magazine editor -- Billy learns that he will be traded to another team unless he retires. Over the course of that evening's game, Billy reflects on his career and his five years with Jane, almost unaware that he has a chance at throwing the pitcher's dream: a perfect game.

FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is deftly constructed as perhaps the ideal date movie -- it's a love story that also happens to be a baseball movie. In the flashback segments, we watch the arc of Billy's romance with Jane, including his acceptance of Jane's teenage daughter Heather (Jena Malone). Though Costner is plenty agreeable in his easy-going way, it's Preston who really sells the romantic side of the story. She gives a bright, appealing performance as a woman whose tentative steps into a relationship with a professional athlete all feel momentous to her. The chemistry between Preston and Costner is solid, but there's a nagging sense that there's much more to know about Billy. The absence of any previous romantic history for Billy robs the love story of context; it's hard to see the person he was, so we can feel for the person he needs to become.

Some of that context is provided by the baseball sequences, which are satisfying in their own right. They're less about the game than they are about Billy's intensity and gamesmanship: his ability to "clear the mechanism" and remove all external distractions, his internal monologues about the batters he is facing, his almost old-fashioned respect for the game. Though there are a couple of technical blunders -- a scoreboard that shows no hits for both teams shortly before the announcer says the Tigers have two hits -- the game sequences do their job as character development.

Still, it's sometimes difficult to lock into the fate of Billy and Jane's relationship, not because of the distractions of the game sequences, but because Billy remains so enigmatic. In one sense, that mystery gives FOR LOVE OF THE GAME an intriguingly different romantic tone, since Jane remains oblivious to Billy's focus on baseball until an injury causes him to turn that intensity against her. In another sense, that mystery could simply be a distraction from a viewer's confidence that these two people actually belong together.

Make no mistake, FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is fundamentally satisfying -- it can't help but be with two big payoff scenes -- and well-acted. Director Sam Raimi delivers the crowd-pleasing goods, and the film delivers more laughs than you might expect. I only wish Billy Chapel had been more a complete character, and less one of those baseball icons Costner has exploited so successfully in other films. The game continues to be bery, bery good to him. It just could have been better.

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