While he'd love to be able to make a George Carlin-esque quip about balls and strikes, Judge Bill Gibron will merely state that this is a good, if occasionally grating, independent drama.
Would You Let This Man Be Your Father?
When a local umpire named Ray Cook (Nick Nolte, Addiction) makes a controversial call during a championship high school baseball game, pitcher Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan, Jurassic Park III) is furious. So a few of his friends decide to get even with the lout and pelt his house with toilet paper, graffiti, and a little mindless destruction. Naturally, Ray catches Dave, thus beginning an uneasy friendship. The older man makes the boy a deal—if he cleans up the mess, he won't call the police. Of course, there is still the issue of a broken car window. Leave it Ray to come up with an idea: he will have Dave stand-in for his son at his upcoming 40th High School Reunion. At first, the kid is concerned. The request seems rather odd and he doesn't really think he can pull it off. But with life at home almost unbearable, thanks to a dad (Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) deep in a divorce-based depression, and a little sister struggling to survive it all, Dave eventually says yes. But there is more than just memories to be unearthed at this awkward anniversary. Dave will learn the truth of Ray's past, and it will play a major part in how he views the man from now on. In baseball, a missed strike is often referred to as being just Off the Black. For Ray and Dave, a real relationship has a similarly slight chance of succeeding.
Off the Black is a movie with absolutely no subtext. It doesn't want any backstory, dares never to dwell beyond the basics of characterization, and figures that the effective performances by its able and amiable cast will get it through the regular rough patches. It's a lot for a first-time filmmaker to take on, especially when he's trotting through cinematic territory that others have traversed more effectively, yet novice director James Ponsoldt pretends to be up to the task. He's got his Todd Field Handbook at the ready, and has studied the sensibilities of such outsider auteurs as Victor Nunez and Allison Anders. When it comes to shallow suburban angst and familial dysfunction undeclared, Ponsoldt is the moviemaking master. All throughout this overly earnest character study, our director decides to keep everything shallow and on the surface. Relationships just exist, personality quirks (like raging alcoholism) are merely part of the local social fabric. Even the national pastime is paved over in a way of dismissive denial, as if playing baseball and merely thinking about playing baseball were the exact same thing. Tie it all up in a baffling turn by a chronically craggy Nick Nolte (my, the man is no longer moist) and you've got a story of loss and redemption that's supposed to uplift the spirit and save the sullied soul or something like that.
Don't misunderstand—Off the Black is not bad. In fact, it's rather engaging at times. It's hard not to identify with a tale that covers a couple of wayward men looking for the non-erotic male bonding they so desperately require. Guys aren't supposed to feel, let alone cry and complain, so Ponsoldt keeps Nolte and his youthful costar Trevor Morgan from really digging deep. This, of course, stays within the film's narrative facets. We learn absolutely nothing about the people populating the screen. Nolte is a bitter drunk, obviously obsessed with sports and his lack of interpersonal connections. The "why" to all this is never answered. Similarly, Morgan is all messed up inside, angry that his delinquent dad (a "blink and you'll miss him" Timothy Hutton) and distant mother are separated, and he's unable to connect with the jockocracy of high school. But again the context for all this inner sadness is never explained. We can only guess, and perhaps that is Ponsoldt's plan. Instead of giving us motivational rationales, we're simply supposed to create them in our own head—a kind of interactive avenue toward insight. There's even a few ancillary characters tossed in at random to really confuse us. Take, for instance, the diabetic single mother who has a kind of metaphysical May/December thing for Nolte, and his protégé. Let's not forget the infirmed Papa with a convenient case of scene-specific Alzheimer's. And what possessed Sally Kirkland to play an almost 60-year-old horndog (and don't say typecasting).
Even without dimension, it's the performances that make this all passable. Nolte is lost in his own worked-over universe. He is permanently pickled and delivers his lines in a combination grumble and attack of acid reflux. On the opposite end of the thespian spectrum is Morgan. He acts as much with his wispy pageboy haircut as he does with his open, honest face. When confronting Nolte's Ray or enjoying a proud moment at the fated high school reunion, he is very good at giving heft to what is a very lightweight character. As stated before, Timothy Hutton the celebrity is as vaporous and vague as the father he plays, and someone still needs to explain Rosemarie DeWitt to the rest of the storyline. Her presence is pleasant, if highly perplexing. Also, no one is going to suggest Ponsoldt for a place in the visionary director's hierarchy anytime soon. His images are all gaffes, mistaken moments (Nolte on a motionless jet ski, Morgan walking through a Tideland-like field) meant to mean something—if only in this filmmaker's fragile psyche. Perhaps the most distressing thing about Off the Black is the potential we see in every single frame. Had Ponsoldt simply succumbed to the concept of giving his movie a foundation upon which to play off of, had he just allowed Nolte, Morgan, Hutton, Kirkland, and DeWitt to expand on their superficial characters, we'd have a real winner on our hands. Instead, this movie more or less misses the mark—just like the fabled pitch that starts the entire ball game rolling.
THINKFilm, who picked up this picture at Sundance, presents it in a DVD package that's actually rather good. The technical specs are excellent, the movie looking very good in its 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen treatment. The colors are superb and the depth of detail concrete. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 offers an atmospheric and moody mix. The sound of a passing train takes precedent in many scenes, and there are moments when the oddly subdued score makes its point loud and clear. Naturally, the dialogue is easily discernible, no matter how hard Nolte tries to trip it up. As for extras, we are given a nice full-length audio commentary by Ponsoldt. It is loaded with references and insights, along with the happiness and hardship of being a first-time filmmaker. Equally involving is the 22-minute Behind the Scenes featurette. It's combination of off the cuff moments between cast and crew and the occasional quickie Q&A is well worth a look. Last but not least is a nice collection of trailers. All of this added content gives Off the Black a sense of import that the movie itself tends to avoid.
Perhaps it's unfair to complain about writer/director James Ponsoldt's lack of narrative complexity. Maybe, in an attempt to avoid all the meaningless maudlin muck that's usually associated with this kind of story, a basic, bare-bones approach worked best. This doesn't mean that Off the Black is a masterpiece. Superficiality can't get you that far. But if you're willing to give this indie effort the benefit of the doubt, there is a lot to acquit it. It's just sitting on the surface with very little to support itself.
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Scales of Justice
• Full-Length Audio Commentary from Writer/Director James Ponsoldt
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