Saturday, January 17, 2015

Bull Durham (1988)

Director: Ron Shelton                                      Writer: Ron Shelton
Film Score: Michael Convertino                      Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Starring: Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Trey Wilson

The first of Kevin Costner’s baseball trilogy, Bull Durham is a romantic comedy rather than the more serious pictures that followed it, Field of Dreams and For the Love of the Game. But the film is also notable for being the picture in which Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins met and began a relationship that lasted twenty years and produced two children. The film was written and directed by Ron Shelton who had written a couple of films prior to this, but his was his first job as a director. The chemistry with his star worked out well, and in the following decade he would team up with Costner again for another sports-related romantic comedy, Tin Cup. Costner has done particularly well in these films because of his natural athleticism, and that was the primary reason that Shelton cast him. The film was a surprise hit, as sports films in general were not very popular at the time. Shelton had been a minor league baseball player and used his experience when writing the screenplay. But the romantic angle is also very well done and holds up today, as well as the buddy-picture antagonism between Costner and Robbins. The film touches a number of cinematic tropes and does all of them very well, resulting in its continuing popularity.

The film begins with Durham, North Carolina’s triple-A baseball team, the Bulls, getting a new pitcher, Tim Robbins, a hot young prospect who signed a hundred thousand dollar signing bonus. He has a thunderbolt for an arm, but is immature and has no control on the mound. Enter Kevin Costner, a veteran catcher that the team hired to teach Robbins and get him ready for the majors. At the same time local baseball fan Susan Sarandon has her own spring training, which involves selecting a player to have an affair with for the season. She brings both Robbins and Costner over to her house, but when Costner figures out what’s going on he refuses, saying that after ten years in the minor leagues he doesn’t try out any more. But while Sarandon hooks up with Robbins for the season, there is plenty of sexual tension between her and Costner. Meanwhile, the baseball season marches on with its ups and downs, winning and losing streaks, as well as the drama that happens off the field with Sarandon’s best friend, the promiscuous Jenny Robertson who is working her way through the entire team. The late, great Trey Wilson plays the harried manager who relies on Costner to lead the team, and the wonderfully comedic Robert Wuhl plays the goofy pitching coach.

Kevin Costner is a great choice for the lead because of his obvious athletic ability. What’s a little more of a stretch is Tim Robbins. Even though he played hockey when he was younger, he does look a bit awkward on the pitcher’s mound. But it was his breakout role and he plays the part well. The rest of the baseball cast was chosen from actual athletes and director Ron Shelton was a stickler for authenticity on the field by completing plays after the camera stopped rolling. Costner even hit a couple of actual home runs during the filming. Susan Sarandon is lovely as the older woman and, though she and Robbins began their off screen romance during shooting, she works very well with Costner and the two are terrific together. It’s hard to believe that this was Shelton’s first film. His scenes are well composed, and the baseball montages look as if they had been shot by a veteran. One of the other aspects of the film that is tremendous is the music by little known composer Michael Convertino. He does a great job of scoring, and integrates it perfectly with the eclectic mix of soundtrack songs. The comedy in the piece is also very natural and unfolds in an unforced way. There is a lot to like about Bull Durham and it’s popularity with fans through the years and frequent rotation on cable attest to that. It’s a great romantic comedy that does not depend on knowledge of sports to be enjoyed.

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