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FOR LOVE OF THE GAME

Directed by Sam Raimi

"You and me?" asks catcher Gus Sinski (John C. Reilly) of his old friend, veteran pitcher Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner). "One more time?" It's a poignant moment, the top of what may be the last game of Chapel's career before he's either traded or quits the game he has loved and worked to master all his life. It's also a difficult moment to pull off, because schmaltz lurks in the infield as the words hang in the air. As is the case with most of For Love of the Game, a hint of the maudlin threatens the movie's emotional plausibility. To combat this, director Sam Raimi pushes every button within his reach, manhandling Dana Stevens' script into credibility through all the technical means at his disposal.

Fortunately, it's a crackerjack of a script, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Shaara. The season is about over, and Chapel has been informed by Detroit Tigers owner Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox) that it's time to sell the team. In Chapel's opulent hotel suite, the two men lament the corruption and decline of the Great American Pastime. Wheeler compares Chapel — who spent the previous night icing his arm — to the old boys, whom nobody had to show the door. "I've always been a Tiger," Chapel sighs, suddenly faced with the choice of career downsizing or a life outside the league. The scene is quite forced, but the stage is set.

Playing against the Yankees in their own stadium proves to be a massive challenge for Chapel, and not just because his arm isn't as young as it used to be. It also happens to be the day that his on-and-off love of five years, Jane Aubrey (Kelly Preston), finally calls it quits. A cosmetics columnist for women's magazines, Jane has been summoned to London by an editor coveting her skills. Her farewell to Chapel in Central Park marks the end of their long, arduous and beautiful affair.

These painful transitions fester under Chapel's cap as he strides to the mound to deliver the best of what he has left. Flashes of his past — from childhood games of catch with his father to the 1984 World Series — flood through him, inducing vulnerability. He's forced to push hard to "clear the mechanism," in other words, to shut out the hecklers and noise, to focus. The Yankees have all got it in for him, and he has a name and a history to go with each of their numbers. Among them is Sam Tuttle (Michael Papajohn), a bitter opponent who provokes Chapel to sneer, "I saw that shitty little Hollywood movie you did!" Raimi maneuvers his camera for maximum animosity during conflicts such as this. He also strives to illuminate old alliances, even if they're based on clumsy errors, as when fellow Tiger Mickey Hart (no, not the drummer) gets bonked by a fly he should have caught and Chapel soothes his soul. The Tigers battle the Yankees in fits and starts, with time moving subjectively to match the mighty pitcher's moods and recollections.

Within the framework of the heated, aggressive game unfolds the romance of Billy and Jane. With Preston playing naive and quirky and Costner playing determined and stolid, this is a bit like a reprise of The Accidental Tourist plunked into the middle of Major League. Not that anyone is likely to complain. The game is cool to watch, and the love story is assertive enough to hook even the stodgiest ESPN man.

Jane's rented VW convertible dies on the highway, and Chapel, passing in his Porsche, manages not only to fix it but also to coax her into his car. He seats her with the players' wives (where she's nearly dismissed as "the blonde of the week") and shows off his game for her, eventually bringing off a sweet seduction. Tenderly rendered episodes of years of separation, reunion, strife and discovery follow, as Chapel learns to wonder: Has he been man enough to merit Jane's attention?

Raimi displays a steady hand for romance, here directing Costner and Preston to maximum effect. Perhaps someday someone will acknowledge that he squeezed impressive performances out of Frances McDormand and Liam Neeson in his own Darkman, years before the Academy noticed them. It's a shame that rubber monsters and hyperkinetic camerawork have to be set aside for mainstream fare such as this, but the actors keep us busy. Preston, although never quite soulful, keeps the scenes fun with her energy. Costner actually pulls off a completely convincing cry. Not bad.

What is worth contemplating, however, is how much of this is supposed to be fantasy and how much we're supposed to read as realism. With Bull Durham and Field of Dreams this was easier; the line between fantasy and reality was clearly defined in each. In this third installment of Costner's baseball trilogy, it's harder to tell; this is probably due, ultimately, to the shallowness of Jane Aubrey. She's a woman, she's witty, she's fun, she's capable of rage, but who is she? Costner's character is widely drawn (and he even gives the ladies his obligatory booty-shot). But Jane is concocted from excessively simple iconography (cutout paper kitties, refrigerator magnets) and is as cosmetically oriented as her writing. In a pushy movie like this, it's wise to listen to what's not being spoken.

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