Saturday 30 June 2012

Movie Review: Bull Durham (1988)

An adult romantic triangle set against the backdrop of minor league baseball, Bull Durham is about imperfect characters colliding and finding each other despite the most unfavourable of circumstances.

The Durham Bulls of North Carolina toil away in the obscurity of the local minor league circuit, the roster as usual filled with the major league wannabes, never-will-bes, and the once-were-but-are-no-mores. Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) is too old to be a local groupie, but she persists in selecting one Bull each year to be her season-long toy boy. She insists that her annual lover will always have a career-best year and get a chance at the majors.

This year, the Bulls have a promising pitching prospect in Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a dim wit with a rocket of an arm but nothing between the ears, least of all an ability to control his pitches. The Bulls recruit veteran catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a career minor-leaguer who had the briefest flirtation with the majors, to help mentor Nuke. Annie is a natural soul mate for Crash, but much to his disappointment, she chooses Nuke to be her lover for the season. Crash needs to help Nuke develop while trying to find a way to wind down his own career with dignity and win Annie's affections.

Crash Davis and Annie Savoy are meant for each other, and the clever attraction of Bull Durham is in engineering a route for them to realize that they both need to abandon their old lives and find permanent solace in each other's arms. Crash is too old for the minor leagues, hanging on to reach a dubious home run record and living on the memories of a 21 day stint in the majors while feeling sorry for himself that he never progressed further. Annie is too old to be sleeping around with young studs, parking her life to one side and living off the dreams of others. Yet they both stubbornly persist, ironically unable to save themselves from their own lives but potentially able to save each other.

Sarandon and Costner bring a charming crustiness to Annie and Crash, two rolling stones with plenty of accumulated mould. If director and co-writer Ron Shelton does err, he lands on the side of both characters being almost too world weary and aware of what matters to them, while at the same time lamenting what might have been. Costner plays Crash perfectly, but he is written to be almost too smart for where he is, a man with all the answers for all the world's questions except his own doggedness in the face of a clearly closed door to the big leagues.

Annie: What do you believe in, then?

Crash: Well, I believe in the soul. The cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pause] Goodnight.

Annie: Oh my. Crash...

Crash Davis' glowing confidence in knowing what matters in life cemented Costner's stardom after The Untouchables and No Way Out, while Sarandon launched the second phase of her career as the attractive older woman grappling with the creeping challenges of middle age.

Tim Robbins plays his part as the third point in the triangle, and certainly the one with the dimmest light. Nuke is goofy, with a heart that is warm enough but filled with misplaced self-confidence, and likely to go in life only as far as his pitching arm will take him.

Bull Durham captures the taste and smell of minor league baseball. The awkward local business promotions, the endless bus rides, the tired ball park announcers who have seen it all and wish they haven't, and the difficult conversations between managers and ball players are all here as the atmospheric backdrop to the emerging romance. Bull Durham is about finding the joys of life in unexpected places, a story of unlikely love and baseball discovering again that they belong together.

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