For Love of the Game

In “For Love of the Game,” an aging superstar’s career comes down to one last game, one final chance at proving he’s still a viable player. That superstar’s name: Kevin Costner.

His character, fictitious Detroit Tigers pitcher Billy Chapel, is in the same boat. I won’t reveal what happens to Chapel — whether or not he’s able to pull off that last win — but as for Costner, he hits this one out of the park.

After a string of disappointing (and even downright bad) films, Costner reminds us in this one why we ever liked him in the first place. He IS capable of acting, even emoting at times. When he wants to be, he’s an effective Everyman, a guy that both men and women find appealing and enjoyable to watch.

The structure of “For Love of the Game,” directed by Sam Raimi, is interesting. Basically, we are given two scenes before the Big Game, the final game of the season. In one of those scenes, Chapel’s girlfriend Jane announces she’s leaving him after five years and moving to London. In the other one, he finds out the team’s being sold, and the new owners plan to trade him. He is encouraged to just retire.

The rest of the film is the game itself, full of Chapel’s reflections and memories of events leading up to it. Things in the game remind him of his career, his girlfriend, his injuries, his fame and fortune. It’s a genuinely compelling storytelling format, and the leisurely sport of baseball lends itself nicely to such reflection (though the movie does get sluggish at times, as does a game of baseball).

The movie is about love, of course, as Chapel eventually realizes his love for Jane and his error in neglecting her in order to eat, drink and sleep baseball. But baseball is also made to seem like a reasonable alternative to Jane — or to anything, really. If any movie can restore America’s love for this game, it’s this one. The outcome of the game is fairly predictable, but still quite thrilling, as all good sports movies are, and the casting of real-life announcer Vin Scully as the play-by-play man was pure genius. Scully is the premier baseball announcer today, a living legend, and his descriptions of the game in this movie make the whole pastime seem magical again. Maybe it’s my own fond memories of his voice in my house, calling the Dodgers games every Saturday afternoon, but if Vin Scully tells me that baseball is a fantastic game, and a metaphor for life, and all the other things this movie tells me it is, I believe him.

You’ll believe, too.

A- (2 hrs., 18 min.; PG-13, brief strong language and some sexuality.)