The producers of "For Love of the Game" must be hoping there's still a giddy hangover from last year's home-run gloryfest. Baseball, in danger of looking like a daguerreotype next to the digital enhancements of basketball, soccer and extreme sports, got a boost from the thigh-sized arms of Mark McGwire, but "For Love of the Game" looks like a Little Leaguer no matter what Hollywood team you'd try to put it on: Sports Movies, Chick Flicks, Kevin Costner Movies, Kevin Costner Baseball Movies.
The movie's first section is a jerky flow of unearned sentiment and crises that arrive as quick as hiccups. The film concerns major-league pitcher Billy Chapel (Costner), who soon after we meet him gets pelted with bad news: His team is being sold, he could be traded, his girlfriend's leaving and his catcher might be replaced.
The problems multiply quickly for us, too. We must ignore dialogue that's so corny, you want to slap the writers silly. Sink down in your seat when team owner Gary Wheeler (Brian Cox) tells Billy, "You're the heart and soul of this team," or when Billy intones, "I've always been a Tiger."
We're also expected to immediately sympathize with the put-upon Billy, even though we don't know him from Adam. The reasons we should like him seem to be that (1) he's a baseball pitcher, (2) he's played by Costner, (3) he can afford a suite the size of a Caribbean island, but (4) he tips the hotel staff handsomely.
The bulk of the film covers a single baseball game, possibly Billy's last. We're stuck watching the flat stare of Costner ... and watching it and watching it. Boy, after a while it seems like his slightly knit brow, his starched-stiff mouth and his crooked bottom teeth are in every frame.
Extended flashbacks juxtapose the game's struggles with Billy's relationship with Jane (Kelly Preston), the point being that baseball is like life. This metaphor is not particularly worse than any other comparison between a small, enclosed event and that amorphous thing we experience while awake. But it's not enough to sustain a two-hour movie.
Billy is meant to come across as dignified, reticent and slightly weathered, like expensive leather. In this vein, there's a running gender joke that's so reductive, it's embarrassing: Jane keeps querying Billy with a random questions ranging from "Dark or white meat?" to "Do you believe in God?" Tellingly, Billy never asks her anything in return.
Still, some good humor and gentle wit reach the surface -- almost, it seems, by accident in a film that wants so much to be respectful, it should be wearing a Sunday-church veil (note Billy's last name). How are we to take it when Jane, trying to get attention for a hurt Billy in an emergency room, screams out, "Isn't baseball our national pastime?" Is this just a frantic tactic, or are we supposed to think that, yes, Billy's baseball-hero status makes him more worthy in the ER pecking order? "For Love of the Game's" earnestness seems itself like a desperate cry for attention. Watching two hours of the NBA's "I love this game" promo spots would be loads more interesting -- and would say more about the status of sports in our culture today.