Sony // 2009 // 114 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // September 7th, 2009
The blurb on the DVD case for Sugar includes the words "inspirational," "struggling," and "baseball." From that alone you should be able to work out what kind of motion picture you're in for, and if you're likely to love the movie or hate it.
As a follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2006 effort Half Nelson, filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have turned to the sports genre, taking the real life story of a Dominican baseball player nicknamed Sugar as their source. The film is a sort of culturally diverse Rocky, albeit with a surprisingly unconventional ending for a motion picture that obeys nearly every genre law for most of its runtime. Sugar is an affable feature, unlikely and undeserving of the hype that has been lavished on some of the sports genre's highpoints, but reasonably diverting and credible in its own right.
Promising Pitcher Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is recruited to the minor leagues of American baseball, leaving his humble Dominican routes behind him in the process. Overwhelmed by the culture shock and the newfound significance of the game in this alien world, Sugar has to rely on his own skill and determination to keep his dreams of playing major league ball a reality. On his travels he befriends teammates both native and foreign whilst enduring the testing times that any aspiring sports star inevitably must face.
Sugar isn't a great film but rather a solidly constructed and acceptably interesting venture, not likely to live long in the memory but still able to keep you engaged for the vast majority of its 114 minutes. Everything about the feature is decent, just never excellent or passionate enough to fully cement itself in the sports genre's subconscious. I missed Half Nelson, but by all accounts it's a superior film to this one, Fleck and Boden seemingly having regressed slightly in taking this story to the big screen. It's still a nifty little flick to have on your directorial CV and in fairness doesn't completely abandon itself to formula, but one might hope for something a little more ambitious and unique from the duo next time around.
Lead actor Perez Soto makes an encouraging debut in the title role; there remains room for improvement, but for an actor on his first run in front of the camera, I was fairly impressed. Without a good performance to hinge the film on, Sugar just wouldn't work, and whilst it's not a career launching turn from Perez Soto, it's a good strong foundation. The screenplay does a commendable job of building up the Sugar character and responds well to Perez Soto's interpretation. The two gel naturally and in a way that makes the character seem like the real deal. However, the movie largely neglects to flesh out any of the supporting figures, character and subplots regularly seem underwritten and drop in and out of the movie in a random and unsatisfying fashion. The picture attempts to create a rash of other personalities for Sugar to grow alongside, yet mostly these various teammates and locals just act as base level plot locomotives.
The story is based on true events and so it's hard not to be impressed by the tale put up by Fleck and Boden, it's just sometimes you wish the execution wasn't so broad and generic. The narrative arc builds in a predictable fashion and whilst the character always feels organic and genuine, some of the trials and tribulations Sugar is put through feel clichéd and forced. The opening 85 minutes at least tread genre paths a little to slavishly at times, the dialogue is sound, but the plotline would likely have benefited from a little added refinement. From this perspective, Sugar is watchable but unexceptional; it feels like something of a glorified time filler.
The baseball is well shot but not much of the movie operates on the green itself; this is the story of a man and not a game. The movie looks sharp on the disc and the subtitling is solid and easy to follow. Sony have provided a modest group of bonus materials for the release, including an intriguing interview with Perez Soto on his first starring performance and a making off that is more rewarding than most of the EPK style garbage that infects special features everywhere. Also available are some deleted scenes and another roster of interviews on the subject of Baseball in the Dominican. Fans of the movie will probably be disappointed to see no commentary from the directorial pairing but overall this is an okay supplemental package to accompany the movie.
I've done a fair bit of complaining concerning the predictable plot developments in Sugar, but whilst they take up large portions of the picture it would be unfair to say they utterly consume it. The final 25 minutes of this film break away from formula completely and take the story in a far more original and fascinating direction. Up to this point some of the emotional nuances of the picture failed to register, but upon a sharp plot convulsion about 85 minutes in, Sugar explodes into a far more colourful movie. Whilst I wasn't entirely convinced by the opening and middle sections, this ending is a no-brainer to congratulate. If you're going to have one outstanding act in your movie it might as well be the last. After all, who doesn't want to go out with a bang?
It's also neat that the film exploits the culture differences between the lead and the inhabitants of his newfound home; this aspects does go some way to undoing the formulaic damage done during the first three quarters. From this Sugar is given an added dimension that is utilized rather well, adding an extra layer of insecurity to the already uncertain title figure.
It's imperfect and ultimately a little forgettable but a nice leading performance and a sizzling finish make it hard to completely ignore. Boden and Fleck are by all accounts capable of better but this isn't a bad film by any stretch of the imagination or more aptly, toss of the ball.
I wouldn't recommend a purchase, but Sugar at least deserves the
status of rental. Not Guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Daniel Kelly; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Deleted Scenes