For the Love of the Game

Celebrated Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) is having the worst and best day of his life. The woman in his life is leaving him for a high-profile job in London. He’s just been informed by the club’s owner that the team has been sold, and he’s due to be traded to New York.

forloveofthegamecostnerAll this comes as Chapel is on track to pitch the best game of his life, a perfect game against New York. Surrounded by screaming New York fans, Chapel steps up to the plate for what might be his swan song. He has a lot on his mind, and his throwing elbow is giving him grief. Still, Chapel gives it his all “For Love of the Game.”

Call me sentimental (you’re sentimental) and a sucker for unabashedly romantic movies, but “For the Love of the Game” steps up to the plate and hits a home run. I found myself rooting for the characters both on and off the diamond, crossing my fingers and hoping that the film would emerge as an underdog tale and not a bittersweet lesson in life dynamics.

Kevin Costner and baseball make a great couple. From the cornfields in “Field of Dreams” to the romantic rivalry in “Bull Durham,” Costner is a natural. His characters seem genuinely in love with the game, and with the women who wait on the sidelines.

The romance in “For Love of the Game” is traditional at best, but the actors work overtime to make the love connection work. It helps that the film is directed by Sam Raimi, the cult director whose first mainstream film “A Simple Plan” proved he was capable of bigger and better things.

Raimi brings a lush, soft focus romantic edge to the baseball action that serves as a framework to the personal story of Chapel, a forty year old player who is at a crossroads in his life. It is easy to accept Costner as a ball player who has given his all to the game.

When he stands on the mound during the final game and gazes at the clouds in the sky, he’s looking at more than formations. He’s looking into his future, which as the game begins, is just as cloudy.

“For the Love of the Game” begins eloquently enough with Chapel waiting in his luxurious hotel suite for someone to arrive. It is obvious from his preparations that everything has to be perfect. Candlelight dinner. Cold champagne. Mood lighting.

Chapel is waiting for long time girlfriend Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston) to arrive, but it’s going to be a long wait. Before morning arrives, Chapel has finished off the champagne and is using the ice bucket to nurse his sore elbow.

The next morning Chapel learns in the following order that; (1) Team owner Michael Neeley (Brian Cox) has just sold the Tigers; (2) The new owners want to trade him to New York; and (3) Jane has accepted a job with a magazine in London, ending their five-year on-and-off romantic relationship.

That’s more than some people can take, but not Chapel, who bravely takes to the mound and begins pitching a perfect game. His current achievement is interspersed with flashbacks of the last five years, where his relationship with Jane is filled with more hits and misses than a whole season on baseball.

The film is at its best on the field, where Costner commands the screen with a character that is both likeable and admirable. As he stands there staring down the competition, he rattles off an amusing series of comments about each opponent. I especially liked the way filmmaker Raimi conveys the process of Chapel tuning out the crowd, creating an almost surreal environment.

One look at Costner’s statistics and its obvious that the actor is most comfortable in films dealing with sports. He has the look and build of an All-American, and an attitude that reflects a period in time that no longer exists except in our memories.

It’s easy to see why Preston’s character would be attracted to him even though she’s not a fan of the game. Preston is always a delight on the screen, and manages to overcome several mawkish moments with a genuine interest in her character and predicament. A testament to her talent comes when she takes some of the films most glaring cliches and infuses them with enough reality to make them vital.

Screenwriter Dana Stevens, working from the novella by Michael Shaara, does a decent job of making all of this matter. Stevens, whose last screenplay was “City of Angels,” knows how to get the most out of thin material, and makes “For Love of the Game” full-bodied and engaging.

The supporting characters are all interesting and admirable, from John C. Reilly’s pitcher who has seen better days, to Jena Malone as Jane’s teenage daughter who enjoys having a surrogate father around the house.

Even at its most predictable, “For Love of the Game” had me eating out its hand. It wasn’t a full course meal, but it more than filled me up emotionally, and the dessert was exceptional.



Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston, Jena Malone, John C. Reilly, Jena Malone, Brian Cox, J.K. Simons in a film directed by Sam Raimi. Rated PG-13. 138 Minutes.


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