Arts and Lifestyle Wednesday Presented by The Exit Room of Lee's Summit-"Catcher" Misses A Chance To Score
As I boarded a plane from Barcelona headed to Philadelphia, I had a bit of a mission. I wanted to find an in-flight film that would fit the bill for a Clink Scale review. Since the movies are recent but not brand new, many would be too familiar, and you would either seen them already, or heard plenty about them.
So, lo and behold, as I passed through the voluminous selections, one popped as perfect. I was interested in the subject matter, there was a sports theme, and there was a Kansas City connection. The film is “The Catcher Was a Spy”, a true story (or close anyway) starring Paul Rudd as Moe Berg, a longtime major league catcher, who after retirement takes his genius-level intelligence into the service of the United States during World War II.
If ever a film fits the description “there was a great movie in there somewhere” this is it. It has a fascinating storyline, a brilliant cast, and plenty of opportunity for intrigue. Despite the best efforts of that cast, the film, while certainly interesting on the surface, never quite hits the mark.
The film begins at Fenway Park (extremely well staged) as the late thirties Berg is playing for the Red Sox in the late 1930’s, hanging on at the end of a long but unspectacular career as an intelligent, light-hitting catcher known for his defense and guile. Berg loves playing the game, and is resisting the efforts of his manager Joe Cronin to get him to give up playing and become a coach.
Berg is an affable loner, his teammates seem to like him, with one glaring exception, but he goes his own way. He is an enigma in baseball, a learned man known as “The Professor”, and he is very much a mystery to all around him.
Early on in the film, too early for me, questions about his sexuality remain. It seems likely that he is gay, and a younger player on the team follows him in the evening after a ballgame to try and unearth the secret. Berg beats him to a pulp, and then heads to the apartment of his girlfriend, who he has an aggressive sexual encounter with. She asks him where that came from, in a nice way. It is one of too many scenes in the film that are heavy handed.
Rudd, like everyone in the cast, is quite good with what he is given. He fits the part very nicely. He is serious, but with a wry sense of humor. His only scenes that fall flat are when the writing is just too ponderous to overcome in the script by Robert Rodat. Jeff Daniels, as Berg’s eventual military superior after Moe calls in some favors to take his Princeton and Sorbonne education to the OSS intelligence unit, gets the worst of it and manfully tries to deliver some extremely stentorian dialogue, which is usually just there to advance the plot.
The movie is wildly overedited, the flashbacks are too jarring. The film runs just 95 minutes and definitely would have benefited from at least fifteen more. Until the final third, it is racing along trying to cram in a complicated plot. This isn’t to say it is uninteresting, and it certainly has its moments, and some fine turns from the cast.
Berg starts off doing important work on complicated desk projects, but he wants out of the office structure, and eventually he gets the assignment of killing the German professor suspected of working to create a Nazi atomic weapon. To do this he has to get behind enemy lines, as the three-man team of Guy Pearce as the machine-gun wielding protector, Rudd, and reluctant professor Paul Giammatti, somehow make it through a firefight to their destination.
From there on, the story becomes a chess game as to whether the Germans are close to having a bomb, whether the German professor is purposely dragging his feet on the project, and whether Berg will have to, or want to, kill him. Eventually a chess match is used clunkily as a plot device.
Despite its flaws, there are certainly good things to absorb, and the best is the baseball. There is not much of it, but the early depiction of his waning career is very well done. Berg loves the game dearly, and perhaps the best scene in the movie is when he plays ball at the front with fellow soldiers. Of course, he is just removed from playing in the majors and kicks everyone’s ass, and they come to figure out who he is, and revel in the association.
Berg remains an enigma throughout. He clearly loves his girlfriend while keeping his distance, and raising questions about his motivation in the relationship. His sexuality is further muddied by another heavy-handed scene with poor Daniels.
The script has some interesting exchanges, but too many lines of dialogue that are meant to be clever, land like lead balloons. It is very well shot, the lighting is outstanding, and the music by longtime standout Howard Shore is atmospheric and effective. In other words, a giant mixed bag. Hey, any movie with Tom Wilkinson, as another professor, can never be all bad.
Paul Rudd wasn’t done his best favor in this effort to branch out further into a very serious and complicated part, but he shows that he has the chops for it. This should in no way deter other filmmakers from considering him for something of the like.
Director Ben Lewin was going for a noir here, but there is too much wrong to appreciate that aspect. If you go in with low expectations, and are curious to see Rudd in this part, you can enjoy the film. It is never dull, and does create some real tension towards the end.
But this was a missed opportunity, a double on a hanging curveball when a home run was possible.
Clinks Scale 5.9