The Boys of Summer
What sort of transcendence does the film offer Lester (and the audience) at his wife's expense? A greeting-card transcendence. The world is beautiful, says the daughter's boyfriend Ricky (Wes Bentley), who serves as the picture's moral center; and American Beauty is accordingly beautiful, thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall. You might notice, for example, how the shadows seem to breathe when Ricky stands with Jane under a canopy of trees, or how Lester and Carolyn's kitchen glows at night. Mendes, who is a first-time film director--he's made his reputation in the theater, with productions such as Cabaret and The Blue Room--seems to lack any instinct for linking one shot to another. His camera placement is expressive only when formulaic (he knows when a cut to a long shot will get a laugh), and camera movement is simply beyond him. But by hiring Hall, he's been able to buy good-looking images, in much the same way as American Beauty acquires for Lester, on the cheap, the peace that passeth understanding.
Am I being too hard on this film? I could think so, when I look back on Spacey's performance. Toward the end, as the peace descendeth, someone asks him how he's doing, and he replies, quietly and with surprise, "I'm great." He makes it a genuinely touching moment. But then I think of the moments that immediately follow, with more overdrawn gestures from Mendes and Ball--more damned cleverness--and I feel as if the truth Spacey found has been swamped.
It's swamped not in beauty but complacency. When Joe Gillis went to the Beyond in Sunset Boulevard, he recalled a life spent amid social change. (Silent movies went out of style; so did their stars, along with the customs and beliefs they embodied.) Even George Bailey, during his Capracorn meditations on a wonderful life, thought of how manners and economies and cityscapes may evolve. But the world of American Beauty is eternal, arrested at the end of history.
This is the satire and moral uplift you get when filmmakers can no longer conceive of a changing world. No wonder the satire is mere mockery, the uplift easy, the only hero left standing at the end of time an adolescent male.
* * *
However much Kevin Costner's film The Postman was derided, I have to admit I found it loopily entertaining. It's not every day that a movie resolves conflict by springing a lion from the bush to eat the star's antagonist. Nor does every film work up to the swearing-in of a mail carrier as an emotional high point.
Those are the qualities I miss in the new film starring Costner, For Love of the Game: the unnecessary, the improbable, the cheerfully ridiculous. Written ploddingly by Dana Stevens, based on a novel by Michael Shaara, For Love of the Game is the story of Billy Chapel, star pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, who has two crises dumped on his lap within the film's first fifteen minutes. He is told he ought to retire, after nineteen years in the majors; and he learns that the woman he loves (Kelly Preston) is leaving permanently for England, so she can keep an ocean between herself and him.
Once these problems have been front-loaded, Billy can proceed to the day's business, which is to pitch against the New York Yankees. You realize, with a sinking feeling, that the rest of the film--two hours' worth--will be devoted to the game, inning by inning. When the Tigers are at bat and Billy sits in the dugout, you get flashbacks to his love affair, conducted in soft focus with a rosy glow. When the Yankees are at bat, Billy stands on the mound and gosh-darn pitches his heart out, one last time.
I learned from watching Tom Seaver that a great pitcher gets stronger as the game goes on. A bad movie gets weaker: more predictable, more pat. Everything you expect to happen in For Love of the Game actually does, right when you think it will, so that your only uncertainty is the degree to which Costner and Preston will be pushed to overact.
Why do they grimace so? I think the director, Sam Raimi, was showing his contempt for the material. A talented genre filmmaker who recently broke into new territory with A Simple Plan, he directs down to this movie, as if to say that if you've paid to watch this stuff, you must be a chump.
Stay home, and prove him wrong both ways.