Bull Durham

Studio: Criterion

Jul 13, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

“I believe in the church of baseball.”

No baseball movie ever needed to be made after Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham. It doesn’t matter that many good-to-great movies about the sport came after, even ones starring Kevin Costner, but no baseball movie before or since truly captures the game.

But it’s also not a freaking documentary. It’s a comedy that is among the finest of the 1980s, sports-related or otherwise. It’s rough around the edges like Slap Shot from a decade earlier without feeling uncomfortably retrograde. It’s silly like Major League without bordering on idiotic. What helps, and is absolutely essential to the film’s success, is how grounded Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy keeps things. There’s a reason the movie opens and closes with her. Annie is confident, beautiful, and doesn’t take anyone’s shit. Like the baseball players within it, she holds the whole movie together and keeps it from simply being a testosterone-fueled series of macho posturing.

That posturing and masculinity is featured in spades, often to amusing results. When Crash (Costner) first encounters the Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), the pitcher he’s charged with guiding on his journey to the majors, they get in a fight at the local bar. Nuke has no idea who Crash is, and they get tied up over Annie. Crash, naturally, tosses the erratic fireballer a baseball and tells him to hit him in the chest with it.

“I heard you couldn’t hit water if you fell out of a boat,” he taunts.

And, of course, Nuke misses his shot and gets punched in the face before Crash tells him he’s the new catcher and his first lesson is complete.

This is all due to Shelton’s smooth as silk script. Every single scene from the opener to the very end has at least one, usually two or more, line that can be quoted at will. Whether it’s Crash extolling his brand of crass wisdom, Annie’s spiritualist philosophy, or Coach Riggins’ (Trey Wilson) mumbling profanity, it’s almost all gold. For a sports comedy to deftly tell three characters’ arcs while keeping the laughs coming, it’s almost a small miracle. But Annie, Crash, and Nuke each feel like fully realized individuals genuinely worth caring about. In most cases you get laughs or you get a good story. With Bull Durham, you get both.

Nuke is on his way up and Crash is winding down a career in the minors who played in the bigs for a cup of coffee. One is caught in the moment of coming greatness buoyed by a million-dollar arm, while the other is feeling every moment of the last decade, in danger of being overcome by bitterness. Past that, they are two distinct measures of masculinity offering greater depth than one may come to expect. Crash, especially, contains multitudes that have yet to creep into Nuke’s noggin (and maybe they never will). This is underlined in their respective approaches to romance and how Crash is a bit more refined while Nuke makes love like he pitches: he’s kind of all over the place.

If there is a weakness to movie, it’s the pedestrian cinematography throughout. It’s functional, gets the job done, and the editing will occasionally do wonders for a visual gag, but it’s not aiming to do anything special with its look. But then, would Bull Durham be a better, more enjoyable movie if Roger Deakins was manning the camera? I’d wager no.

In terms of a movie getting the Criterion treatment, it may seem like a curious choice due to how mainstream or low-brow it is. This isn’t Antonioni or Godard. And to some, it may come across as “selling out.” This, for lack of a better term, is bullshit. A great movie is a great movie, and this release is as well-curated as any of its more … worldly fare.

There are a pair of audio commentaries, a new interview with Shelton, a couple older pieces about the movie throughout the years – really showing how lasting its legacy has been – and excerpts from a 1989 New Yorker piece from the great Roger Angell. The interview with Shelton is a great glimpse into what goes into crafting a sports movie that is true to life. He says that most actors don’t make believable athletes and the opposite is also true. He would know, he played five years in the minor leagues.

But what makes Bull Durham endure beyond its special edition trimmings, its sharp comic timing, and the depiction of the best sport in the world is its exploration of humanity. We get a variety of angles focusing on what it means to be a man, a woman, and how expectations and reality often clash all with the backdrop of a minor-league baseball season. Annie isn’t some shrinking violet, and while Crash and Nuke both exhibit typical male tendencies – Crash is often mean, Nuke often clueless – neither is wholly defined by these attributes. They grow. We grow. And sometimes we get to the show.

But if we can all just believe in slow, wet kisses that last for three days I think we’ll all be better off.



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