MGM // 1988 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 16th, 2010
A Major League Love Story in a Minor League Town.
"This world is made for people who aren't cursed with self awareness."
It's the start of another year for the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team, which means it's time for Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon, The Lovely Bones) to pick a new boy toy. Every season, Annie picks a single player to spend the year with. This is a highly coveted position for a player to be in, as a season spent with Annie entails a great deal of both personal training and sexual delight. This year, two new additions have caught Annie's eye. The first is Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins, Mystic River) a dim-witted pitcher with an incredible arm. Nuke would easily be a major-league contender were it not for his horrible control. The second is Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, The Postman), a veteran player who has been slaving away in the minors for over a decade. Crash is a catcher whose no-nonsense approach to the game is perhaps unexciting but it's undeniably effective. Both of these players desire Annie's affection (for entirely different reasons in each case) and both yearn for a shot at playing in "The Show."
Judge Harold Gervais wrote a superb analysis of Bull Durham that I highly recommend reading, so I won't attempt to cover all the same territory. However, I would like to share a few thoughts on the film.
Much is made of the fact that Bull Durham is "A baseball movie that isn't about baseball." One of the taglines proclaimed it a film about "America's other favorite pastime," and some have read the film as essentially a comedy/drama of sexuality using baseball as a backdrop. I think all of this short-changes just what a strong understanding Bull Durham has of what makes baseball such a special game. If the Costner-starring Field of Dreams captures the appealing magic and mythology of baseball, then Bull Durham captures the superstition and minutiae. There is no game on Earth more superstitious than baseball; no sport in which athletes are so willing to try any old gimmick in order to maintain (or spark up) a streak of success.
Writer/director Ron Shelton spent some time in the minor leagues himself, and he has an eye for the little details. Everything from the cheap pageantry of the minor league to the shorthand between coaches in the dugout is captured with such convincing accuracy; we never doubt for a moment that this is exactly how this particular world is supposed to look and feel. I love the little scene in which one player wants another to touch his bat with a voodoo charm -- it begins as a casual request, but look a little closer and you'll see a desperate need for a little bit of that good voodoo. There are few things more dangerous to a player in baseball than a mental block, and odds are that this particular player will not get over his hitting slump until something convinces him that the curse has been lifted.
Mental issues are what have prevented Nuke from making it very far. He's a tremendous pitcher until he actually thinks about pitching. As long as he's just mindlessly coasting along on the mound, he's an ace. When he starts to analyze his pitching, he's all over the place. This is the problem that both Annie and Crash are determined to help Nuke overcome, though Annie is acting out of kindness and Crash is acting out of a begrudging sense of duty as Nuke's catcher. Both on and off the field, Nuke can only truly succeed if he isn't putting too much mental effort into it (note the scene in which Crash coaches Nuke on how to successfully coast through an interview by giving the same bland answers over and over again).
Crash is a smart guy, the sort of well-adjusted player who's been playing the game long enough to simply rely on common sense and fundamentals. He can get away with actually contemplating the game, but he simply doesn't have the raw talent required to make it to the next level. He's a good minor-league player, but the fact of the matter is that he's never going to be more than that. He's one of those minor-leaguers doomed to simply running up and down the farm system for years, putting up good numbers but never demonstrating that they could handle the big leagues. He'll never be an all-star, but he is something that Nuke is not: a mature man with a thoughtful mind. Nuke is a cute kid for Annie to play around with, but Crash is a romantic force of masculinity that wants to be taken seriously. After Costner delivers his impassioned monologue early in the film, it's no wonder Annie starts to debate her system of doing things.
Annie is a free-spirited woman and an outgoing personality, but I can't help but wonder how much hurt and frustration she had to go through before she landed upon the happiness she has in the film. She informs us at the beginning that she's tried almost every religion and found them all unsatisfactory. I imagine she found genuine romantic relationships unsatisfactory, too. She has devoted her life to the Church of Baseball; ruled by a god that sometimes works in mysterious ways but who is a hell of a lot easier to understand than most. Her relationships with the guys are her way of making sacrifices to that God, she gives them her body and her infinite wisdom in order that they might go out onto the field and give back to the game in a positive manner. Annie seems content with where she is in life, but around Crash she can't help but wonder whether something more substantial might be better in the long run.
Sarandon, Costner, and Robbins play these characters so effectively; they all seem just right for the roles they've been given. Costner was still regarded as a young leading man when the film was made, but in this role he seems old and weary. A man in his '30s is not old unless that man is an athlete. Costner gives the part a lived-in gravitas that plays very nicely against Robbins' delightfully loopy enthusiasm. Robbins has such superb comic instincts in this film; many of the funniest moments are generated by his reaction to a situation. Finally, Sarandon takes a role that could have easily been a misfire and turns it into something sublime. Her Annie is the fuel that keeps the film alive; a three-dimensional woman who's been around the block and found her answers in an unusual place.
I wish I were able to be as enthusiastic about this Blu-ray release as I am about the film itself. Bull Durham arrives on Blu-ray sporting a fairly mediocre 1080p AVC-encoded 1.85:1 transfer. It looks bland and washed-out much of the time, lacking crisp detail and depth most of the time. It's an '80s film that has "that '70s look" that afflicts so many catalogue titles. On the positive side, the transfer appears fairly natural as there's no evidence of DNR, but the heavy grain and soft picture isn't going to make anyone too excited. The audio is also merely okay, as the film's sound design doesn't get terribly well-mixed (the baseball game scenes could have and should have been much stronger). The music also veers from powerfully clear to slightly muffled throughout. Additionally, the Blu-ray disc lacks supplements aside from a trailer. However, you do get the previously released special edition DVD as a bonus, which contains a pair of audio commentaries and some featurettes. That's nice and all, but it's a real shame MGM couldn't just port that stuff over to the Blu-ray.
I know that some folks are going to hate me for saying this, but the film isn't as honest or wise about sex as it is about baseball. For all of its contemplations of the connections between the bedroom and the playing field, Bull Durham has a somewhat misguided view of romantic relationships that often feels unconvincing. The fact that many of these scenes are funny, charming, and well-performed often masks the fact that they're loaded with nonsense. Still, this is a problem one tends to have in retrospect rather than while watching the film.
Despite feeling more dated than ever at times, Bull Durham is a funny, thoughtful flick that ranks as one of the high points on the resumes of all involved. Too bad the Blu-ray release isn't really worth an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy