January 27, 2016

Bull Durham

In Bull Durham (1988), Susan Sarandon plays Annie Savoy, a North Carolina girl who’s cultish about baseball. She’s tried all the other religions, she says, and nothing feeds the soul like America’s favorite pastime. Her other favorite pastime, bedding a different minor league player every season, becomes, I guess, her sacrament. Sarandon is one of the great fiery actresses, and in Bull Durham she’s like a horny Julia Sugarbaker: A feisty Southern woman with vinegar and charm in equal doses, and armed with a healthy appreciation for poetry. (She quotes Walt Whitman to rookie pitcher Tim Robbins after she strips him down to his skivvies and fastens him to her bed with rope.)

Written and directed by Ron Shelton, who actually played minor league ball, Bull Durham is a surprisingly charming and delightfully weird sports comedy. Part of its charm is the fact that it focuses on minor league ball, so the world of this movie is smaller and more specific, and this detail allows us to care more about the characters and their often comic relationships. If this movie were made today, it would be set in the world of major league baseball, and the stakes would be higher, the film would be bigger, and none of it would have any charm or wit or frisson. (I'm guessing.) Bull Durham has all three of these in spades. 

Kevin Costner, an actor we’ve probably all made fun of for one performance or another, is terrific here, playing a seasoned catcher named “Crash” who’s brought in to play for the Durham Bulls and coach the Tim Robbins character (nicknamed “Nuke” by his avid fan-girl Sarandon). Crash spent a few minutes in the major leagues, and he’s a good ball player, but somehow he never quite made it. Nuke, on the other hand, throws a ball like a gun shoots a bullet. The trouble is his aim. He's comically bad, but his force is so powerful people keep waiting for the magic and the skill to merge. 

But Nuke is a walking jock strap: all juvenile sexual energy and skill, none of it fully formed. Annie picks him (partly because Crash gives her the brush-off), and encourages him to "blink with his eyelids" and wear her garters during the game to make him think less about the game. (It's the over-thinking, this movie argues, that cramps one's style.) Annie says of Nuke late in the movie, “the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.” She's right, and Nuke moves on to bigger things, leaving the grown-ups behind to reevaluate themselves. Annie's a sexual philosopher who prides herself on improving the games of her chosen paramours. But her joking tone belies a certain disappointment with life: she's not sure of the return on her annual investments. Sarandon perfectly captures the sexy-smart designs of Annie without neglecting to show us her underlying vulnerability.

Bull Durham is fundamentally not about baseball, and yet it’s all about baseball. There’s something utterly American about it in the best way—like Walt Whitman or a great MGM musical or Robert Altman—the film exudes a light, invigorating energy; Shelton is propelled by his own exuberant excitement for these characters and their stories, so the movie never feels hampered by plot contrivances. It’s not necessarily daringly original, but it doesn’t need to be: the performances of Sarandon, Costner, and Robbins are all pitched at just the right tempo and rhythm: they operate beautifully together, like those rare characters on sitcoms who are fully formed, fully human, fully lived in, and who somehow never let depth get in the way of their lightness, or become serious in a deadening way. It’s a delicate balance that the movie walks. The result is a terrific entertainment, a freeform sports movie like none other, one that’s zany and wistful and sexy and sentimental in all the right places.

With Trey Wilson, Robert Wuhl, William O’Leary, Jenny Robertson, and Danny Gans. 

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