“The Catcher Was a Spy” begins with onscreen titles telling us that after the Nazis split the atom and put Dr. Heisenberg on the job of developing a bomb, the U.S. sent a Jewish baseball player-turned-spy to assassinate him. Color us intrigued! Alas, then the movie jumps back several years to show us what happened before the assassination mission, and the answer turns out to be, um, nothing. It’s the same problem as with “The 15:17 to Paris,” another movie built around a single incident where there’s no story to tell until it’s time for the incident, and so what are we doing here?
Our hero, Moe Berg, is played by Paul Rudd in his first dramatic leading role. Moe is a long-in-the-tooth catcher for the Red Sox who’s nicknamed “Professor” because he went to Princeton and speaks seven languages. Likable but enigmatic, Moe keeps his personal life to himself, not least because he is secretly bisexual. Even his longtime girlfriend, Estella (Sienna Miller), has no idea. When he’s recruited by the OSS (precursor to the CIA), Moe points out that he’s very good at keeping secrets.
A super-smart bisexual Major Leaguer who becomes a spy and is assigned to kill a Nazi scientist certainly sounds interesting, and the supporting cast is great, but director Ben Lewin (“The Sessions”) is hamstrung by two things. One, Robert Rodat’s screenplay (adapted from Nicholas Dawidoff’s book) is a dry recitation of biopic facts, only with fewer facts than usual because of Moe Berg’s blasted secrecy. We learn nothing about what makes the man tick, nothing about his sexuality, nothing about his inner struggles. He’s as much of a cypher at the end as he was at the beginning.
The other problem, it pains me to say, is that Paul Rudd — as charming, funny, and endearing as he is — lacks the emotional depth as an actor to play a serious, nuanced character (or at least one as difficult as this). The film feels like Rudd’s audition for meatier roles, but bless him, he just doesn’t pull it off.
C (1 hr., 38 min.; )