"Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you get rained out. Think about that." -- Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh
Director: Ron Shelton
Writer: Ron Shelton
Principal cast members:
Sports movies come in two varieties. There are those that are about some very dramatic aspect of the game itself, usually culminating in a climactic contest with huge consequences. Then there are some that are about the people who play the game and why the game is important to them.
Bull Durham is a comedy that falls into the latter category. It takes place in the bottom of minor league baseball, an A-league team in the Carolina League. Into this setting we have a variety of individuals: up-and-coming youngsters trying to make it big, veteran minor leaguers hoping to hang on for one more season, team groupies, coaches, and fans. To all of them, the Durham Bulls mean something very important, whether as a part of everyday life or as a chance for something greater.
Ron Shelton brings his experience as a minor league baseball player to life in this hilarious story of a minor league phenom and the worldly veteran brought in to help groom him for the major leagues. Even though this is the bottom of minor league ball, every person here has dreams and a vision of something greater so there is a poignant kind of humor infusing the misadventures of the team.
Tim Robbins is unbelievably good in a totally comic role as the promising rookie pitcher, Ebbie Calvin 'Nuke' LaLoosh, described as having a million dollar arm and a five-cent head. In his first outing, he sets a Carolina League record by recording fifteen strikeouts. At the same time, he also manages to record fifteen walks and hit the Bull mascot twice - also new league records.
Into the locker room comes the worldly veteran, catcher Crash Davis portrayed with a perfect blend of weary seriousness and impish mischief by Kevin Costner. Crash has no interest in 'holding the flavor of the month's dick in the bus leagues' as he puts it, but as the manager tells him, 'It's a chance to keep comin' to the ball park and keep getting' paid to do it.' And as we fully expect, Crash cannot walk away, no matter how degrading his demotion from AAA ball might be.
Even before Crash's first game, the movie sets up the love triangle between Crash, Nuke, and Annie Savoy, the spiritual baseball groupie who narrates the movie's wonderful opening scene. Annie is a woman who has tried virtually every religion, but it is only in baseball that she finds any fulfillment. Each season, she adopts a young player, tutors him on baseball and life in general in exchange for a blissfully physical relationship with a handsome young stud until the end of the season when he moves on. Annie admits some might consider it a bad trade, but then as she reminds us bad trades are a part of baseball.
These three actors are brilliant in every scene they share. Costner and Robbins are hilarious as the pitching battery of the Bulls. Costner dispenses advice to the young Robbins and keeps him constantly on the defensive. While there is no secret Costner delights in tormenting the young man, he is also teaching a valuable lesson; to rely on his instincts and natural talent, two things the other team cannot take away. Robbins is supremely confident and cocky, but he gradually comes to respect and admire the older player. The comedy of their conversations on the mound is priceless and the chemistry between them is superb.
Robbins and Sarandon actually form a slightly more awkward couple. The young, naïve stud doesn't quite know what to think of an older woman who reads poetry as foreplay and counsels him in metaphysics as part of working out his pitching mechanics. Robbins' befuddled naiveté beautifully counters Sarandon's affected wisdom. It is she who gives him his nickname as he is dashing to get her into bed. She tells him, "You're a regular nuclear meltdown!" Somehow, by the next day, even the PA announcers have come to call him 'Nuke.'
From the moment they meet, it is obvious that Costner and Sarandon belong together. Both of them have the old school respect for baseball that each admires. They are both higher intellects who have ordered the world in accordance to their respective philosophies. We know from the first scene in which they meet that these two were destined to be a couple. Naturally, it takes almost the entire movie to get them there. By then, Annie and Crash have both been abandoned by Nuke who is called up to the majors.
The other characters exist in this movie to help us see these three in a better light. Jenny Robertson plays Millie, a ball park groupie who is obviously designed to give us some idea of how Annie got started. Annie is her mentor but Millie is her own girl and finds her own dreams playing on the team's roster. Giving Crash a look at his own place in the world are the coaching duo of Skip Riggins and Larry Hockett. Trey Wilson is wonderful as Riggins, the grumpy minor league manager who lacks ambition to play at a higher level even as he stresses over managing the adolescent egos of ballplayers. Robert Wuhl is a delight as Hockett, the assistant coach. Here is a man who realizes he has little future, but happily accepts the fact that managing a class A team beats the shit out of selling Lady Kenmores at Sears.
Shelton's writing and direction team wonderfully in this film. It is as much a tribute to the pure love of baseball as it is a comedy. The opening features Annie's wonderful monologue about the 'Church of Baseball' which not only establishes the spirituality of her character, but leads us to a gorgeous opening shot when she comes up the steps in the ball park and we are treated to the lovely vision of a perfectly manicured baseball diamond, lit with bright lights on a perfect summer evening, surrounded by devoted fans. In that moment, we can smell the cigarette smoke, stale beer, and hot dogs of the fans around us. It establishes a perfect sense of place.
Thematically, Shelton places his characters after that first game in the presence of baseball's 'Clown Prince' Max Patkin. Playing himself, Patkin waxes philosophically about how he simply loves baseball and that is all he needs to keep going in his life. We see simpatico instantly as he introduces two people who could easily be his disciples, Annie and Crash. When the brash, loud Robbins intrudes on the meeting moments later, we already know exactly where this is going. Robbins has a lot to learn and these two baseball worshippers are going to be the ones to teach him.
The movie is liberally sprinkled with baseball jokes and pranks. There is much that is undoubtedly anecdotal from the minor league career of Shelton. But it is the chemistry of the three principal characters that holds it all together. Surprisingly, it is the youngest of the three, Robbins, who is the most pivotal in creating that chemistry. There is a point where Crash implores Nuke to play the game with 'fear and arrogance.' Nuke dutifully repeats 'fear and ignorance' much to Crash's ire. But at this point in the film, Nuke is doing it on purpose because he is starting to enjoy Crash's ire quite a bit. We come to realize that is the trademark of Nuke's baseball style - he plays with fear, arrogance, AND ignorance. And that is part of what makes him such a total delight to watch.
Bull Durham is at times irreverent and there is no question that the baseball it gives us is pretty much the bottom of the barrel in the professional world. Despite that, there is purity to watching these people take on America's pastime no matter their age, their skill, or their potential. For that reason, Bull Durham might be one of the purest tributes to the beauty of this game that has been made.
Coolness factor: 7
Overall entertainment: 8