Movie Review: Major League (1989)

Still the freshest baseball movie out there __ 8/10
Review by Brian Wright

Major LeagueBoard Member 1: I’ve never heard of half of these guys and the ones I do know are way past their prime.
Charlie Donovan: Most of these guys never had a prime.
Rachel Phelps: The fact is we lost our two best players to free agency. We haven’t won a pennant in over thirty-five years, we haven’t placed higher than fourth in the last fifteen. Obviously it’s time for some changes.
Board Member 2: This guy here is dead!
Rachel Phelps: Cross him off, then!

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Directed by David S. Ward
Written by David S. Ward

Tom Berenger … Jake Taylor
Charlie Sheen … Ricky Vaughn
Rene Russo … Lynn Wells
Corbin Bernsen … Roger Dorn
Margaret Whitton … Rachel Phelps
James Gammon … Lou Brown
Wesley Snipes … Willie Mays Hayes
Charles Cyphers … Charlie Donovan
Chelcie Ross … Eddie Harris
Dennis Haysbert … Pedro Cerrano
Bob Uecker … Harry Doyle

Meaning fresh as in ‘as genuinely funny and plot-receptive as a baseball movie can be.’ The problem with making movies about baseball, which is a slow and linear game, is the filmmakers have to hold the average viewer’s interest in between the elements of the game (and the season) until the culmination sequences of victory or defeat. Watching a pitcher throw balls and strikes, or a fielder making outs, or even a batter striking the ball can get fairly tedious—just like most of a regular baseball game for most people. The ostensible plot of a sports movie is how the team performs.

So to make a sports story interesting, you have to truly have a solid non-ostensible plot, which becomes the real plot. In the Lou Gehrig Story the real plot is the man’s heroic battle against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis the disease that now bears his name. The Bernard Malamud novel, The Natural (film directed by Barry Levinson and starring Robert Redford) is about heroism lost and regained in a fuller context, baseball as the symbol of the human struggle. Field of Dreams, starring Kevin Costner (produced in the same year as Major League), picks up from The Natural and heads into even more transcendental mythic realms. Of course, none of these is a comedy, and the themes are what uplift you.

In a comedy, actually a light romantic comedy, like Major League, for the story to work, your characters and dialog stand at a premium. They have to be believable, sympathetic, and they have to work. I find the film to be uniquely evocative of a plausible Cleveland Indian reality, Cleveland, Ohio, 1989 USA. The author picks a town straight from Middle America, and captures the key elements of national youth culture of the time—music, hair, street slang, blue collar blues and hopes [almost a continuation of the dance movie craze from the late 70s/early 80s: Saturday Night Fever (1977), Flashdance (1983), Footloose (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987)].

Cleveland wants respect, and especially for its baseball team, which won the World Series in 1948, but has been on hard times ever since. The condition of the ball team is as that of so many of the not-prime-time players the widow Phelps (Margaret Whitton) wants to find… for less than sporting reasons. Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) is a catcher, with bad knees, who has bombed out of the majors, and minors, and now plays in Mexico… when he’s not drinking and carousing and recovering. He’s the veteran on Ms. Phelps’ list, who, like the Cleveland Indians, has gone thru too many years with too little positive to show for it. Being called back is his chance for ‘one last year in the sun.’

The other invitees for the ‘team picked to lose’ begin to assemble in training camp: Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), a talented third baseman who has more interest in his investment portfolio than in stopping ground balls; Eddie Harris (Chelcie Ross) a 40+ year-old pitcher making up for his dead arm with a host of baseball-slickem juices; Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), rookie who’s faster than greased lightning but lacks the Willie Mays bat; Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), big, strong fast-ball hitter who practices voodoo to help him handle the dreaded curve balls; and, finally, Ricky ‘the Wild Thing’ Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), California Penal League star, sporting a wicked fast ball that has a hard time finding the strike zone. So the gang’s all here, all kinds of color.

What makes Major League special is that the mix of characters is written so well, and they act so well together. The timing has the precision of a Greg Maddux pitch selection. The central relationship is Taylor’s friendship both Vaughn and Hayes, and they look to him for guidance negotiating the ropes. The rookies also try to support their mentor as he sees the love of his life at a upscale downtown bistro, Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). Lynn is the woman he failed to fully appreciate the first time he had the opportunity. They have ‘a history,’ a once flaming passion. Can he rekindle the flame, put his life back together in that department, too?

A word about the music: the wistful Randy Newman song about Cleveland that accompanies with the opening credits sets the stage by elevating the story from the concretes of a baseball team’s annual trials to the universals of a community finding its way back to, if not glory, redemption. From a gambler’s perspective it’s a total long shot, but magic defies the odds? The love theme for Jake and Lynn also has a stellar nature; for sure, Major League would never have become a cult classic without the tuneage. The two mentioned convey a longing, simple blue-collar sentimentality: “Sometimes the sun shines on any ol’ dog’s ass; let this be our day for a change.”

Rene Russo shines at the beginning of her career as a woman pursued by a sports’ guy, then again in Tin Cup, with Kevin Costner the long-shot golfer Roy McAvoy, toward the end of her career as a romantic lead. Her skills are an integral reason for the success of both films. I love watching Major League, it’s a benevolent sense of life film for me, almost 25 years old now, nicely devoid of the hypercommercialism Cartel Jockorama has foisted upon us. The baseball is decently convincing, you’ll especially enjoy the orchestration of the the string of games leading to the climax. Good, clean fun.

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