(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon.)
I thought I read the book, or at least I dreamed it, but this is NOT adapted from something by Larry McMurtry, although it sure seems like it oughta be. It is one hell of a funny, crafty, too real for life, kind of movie. The brilliant script, full of clever one-liners, was written by Ron Shelton (White Men Can't Jump (1992)), who actually played minor league ball in the Orioles farm system. Shelton also directed and did a bang-up job. This is a funny movie that is really funny.
What I recalled (when I found out this wasn't from Larry McMurtry) was a baseball novel for juniors that I had read when I was a kid about a crafty, veteran minor league catcher who had once made it to the big leagues but got beaned and never got over it, always bailing out from an inside curve ball. (This was in the days before batting helmets.) He fell back to the minors and went from team to team and town to town, hitting a ton until somebody figured out that his knees would buckle if you brushed him back a bit, and then he'd have to move on. Kevin Costner's part reminds me of that guy (without the beaning phobia).
Susan Sarandon plays Annie Savoy, a baseball groupie in her sexual prime who likes to read poetry and give the players hitting advice. She is just wonderful as she plays sexy mom to the boys, a new one every summer, just so she can avoid any kind of real relationship or commitment. And so along comes Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, one of the more underrated and less flashy stars of our time), playing an itinerant catcher who has managed to hit nearly 300 minor league home runs. He is tough and savvy and once made it to the Show for 21 days. Tim Robbins plays Ebby Calvin "Nuke" "Meat" LaLoosh, a not too bright, wild-armed phenom who needs more than a little guidance. He gets a lot from both Crash and Annie, who are intent on schooling him in their differing expertise. Nuke is just the hunk Annie needs to keep her from falling in love with Crash, but...well, this is a romantic comedy, so you can be sure that love will find a way.
The baseball shtick and the interior dialogues of Robbins and Costner during the games ("Why's he want the heat? I wanna throw the deuce..." And, "Don't think, ... Get that...woman out of your head--Time out!") are really funny, and the bit where Robbins shakes him off and Costner, as an object lesson for his young pitcher, tells the batter what's coming next allowing the batter to hit it out of the park (or onto the Bull Durham sign to win a free steak dinner--is this genuine Americana or what?) are a crack up. But also great are the scenes with Sarandon as she philosophizes ("I believe in the Church of Baseball") and wise-cracks her way through the boys of summer, especially the scene where she ties Nuke up in bed and reads him some Walt Whitman. Now THAT really tires the boy out! Another great scene is on the bus when Crash lets the other players know that he once made it to the bigs where "...you hit white balls for batting practice and the ballparks are like cathedrals." Beautiful.
Best dead-pan one-liner is when Crash catches Nuke in the locker room trying to adjust the panty hose girdle that Annie has talked him into wearing under his uniform: "The rose goes in the front, big guy."
By the way, the great rock and roll soundtrack includes the galvanizing baseball song, "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" by John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame. (Or maybe the title's "In Center Field": "Put me in coach. I'm ready to play, today, in center field.")
It's a shame that Shelton did not win the Oscar for this script, it's really that good. (Ronald Bass won for Rain Man.) The characters are just fascinating and full of life, and not just the three leads. The bit players are funny too, including the hard-talking, middle-brained manager, the mindless pattering coaches, the sweet young groupie girl who makes it with all the players as fast as she can. Even the team clown is good.
The irreverent characterizations, the sweet story, the realistic atmosphere of baseball in small town America (only slightly burlesqued), and some fine acting all rolled together make this one highly diverting little film, actually one of the best baseball films ever made. See this with your best babe. She'll like it as much as you.