Film Review: Bull Durham

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It took me a long time to get round to watching Bull Durham, and even longer to work out what the title means. At first I thought it was the name of a character, but it turns out "Bull Durham" was a type of tobacco that used to be made in the North Carolina town, and presumably inspired the name of the local baseball team on which this centers, the Durham Bulls. They take delivery of two new players: one, rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin 'Nuke' LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a man with "a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head," the other a veteran catcher and minor-league career player, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), sent down from Triple-A to High-A to get LaLoosh's head straight.

He is helped - or not - in this by Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) who is part-groupie, part-unofficial coach to the team. She sleeps with one team member per season: initially, she sets her sights on LaLoosh, tying him up on their first date, albeit only to read Walt Whitman poetry to him [which is about the only way you'd get me to listen to Whitman too]. However, as the season wears on, she finds herself increasingly attracted to Davis, who initially spurned her, saying he was too old to have to 'try out,' as she demanded. It's the love triangle between them that is at the center of the film.

And, to me, it's also the biggest weakness. While not denying Savoy has a certain odd charm, with a mix of intellect and carnality, it just never seems plausible that pro sportsmen of all ages would be attracted to her, like flies to...well, y'know. She comes over, to me, as an arrogant and self-centered bitch: I'm entirely with Davis when he says, "Why do you get to choose?" Like him, I'd have left. Unlike him, I wouldn't have come back. I've also never found Sarandon attractive: in Thelma and Louise, I'd have said she was the third-prettiest character [behind Brad Pitt, and only just ahead of Harvey Keitel]. That said, Sarandon and Robbins met during shooting and have been an item for over twenty years, so she must have something. I also found this startling quote from Craig Counsell: "There's no question that's a true character. You see women like that all through the minor leagues." The images of Craig which this brings to mind, required a large can of mental bleach, let me tell you.

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I found the baseball aspects much more successful, probably helped by the fact that writer-director Ron Shelton was a minor-league player himself. He reached the Triple-A level in the Orioles' organization before realizing he'd never make it to the majors, and quitting. Costner's passion for the game is well-known, having appeared in numerous baseball-themed movies in his career, including another possible candidate for the best to deal with the sport, Field of Dreams. The relationship between the gauche yet talented rookie and the wily veteran who has forgotten more about the game than most of us will ever know, is expertly-drawn. You get a real sense of the characters and the thought-processes which go on, even over the course of a single at-bat.

It's often laugh-out loud funny, such as the meeting on the mound that degenerates into a discussion of acceptable wedding gifts. Or when Davis orders LaLoosh to nail the mascot, purely in order to intimidate the opposing slugger - if only, if only Chris Snyder would tell Max Scherzer to do the same thing at any home game this year. It's also eminently quotable, with a number of lines which I feel certain will be recycled at some point in the 'Pit over the coming season. For example, after a home-run: "Anything traveling that far should have a stewardess on it." Or the ever-appropriate, "Strikeouts are boring. Not only that, they're fascist." Perhaps the most famous is Davis's speech when Savoy asks him, "What do you believe in, then?" It's utterly scripted, but no less marvelous for that [video is probably NSFW, due to language].


Seen through twenty years of subsequent history, it's somewhat ironic that Costner says "I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone," when he'd go on to play Jim Garrison in JFK - who spent much of his life striving to prove the exact opposite. I also got a kick out of Davis's reference to "an opening for a manager in Visalia," where Arizona currently have their High-A affiliate. Though since Costner spent a high-school semester there, and the Diamondbacks wouldn't even come into existence for a decade after this film, it's unlikely of any actual significance.

Good movie? Sure. Very good movie? Probably. Great movie? Not so certain. Greatest Baseball Movie of All-Time? No. I'm largely with Roger Ebert, who wrote "The movie is a completely unrealistic romantic fantasy... It knows so much about baseball and so little about love." Still, while movies about the sport often tend towards the physical (Major League) or spiritual (The Natural), this is certainly among the most intellectual of baseball films, and as such deserves a significant amount of respect.

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