“This is a simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball!” — Skip Riggins, Manager of the Durham Bulls.
The irony of the above statement is that Bull Durham centers on two characters who embody the exact opposite of its sentiment. For Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) and Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), baseball isn’t just a sport of hits and pitches. It’s a mystical, sweeping religion, replete with its own mythologies and superstitions. These two approach their faith from opposite angles: Crash is a weary cynic whom the game didn’t bother to bless with both hands. For Annie, baseball represents an ever-flowing fountain of wisdom and salvation.
Durham focuses on one sweltering season for the Durham Bulls, a struggling minor league team. Things get spicy with the arrival of Ebby “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a major league prospect with a million dollar arm and feathers in his head. A lovable, mercurial doofus, Nuke’s fastball is just as likely to decapitate the mascot as find home plate. Crash is given a daunting assignment: Sand off Nuke’s rough edges and give him the survival skills to endure the nomadic life of a professional athlete. Annie, who mentors one ballplayer every season, takes on a similar assignment. Her guidance, however, has elements of Eastern religion and intense sexuality.
Much of what follows will deal with the push and pull between these three characters: Nuke is caught between Annie’s spiritual potpourri and Crash’s real-world wisdom. Annie finds herself attracted to Nuke’s guileless affability and Crash’s worn-in worldliness. Crash fears that the heat between he and Annie is something real, while slowly developing a brotherly affection for Nuke’s deceptively intelligent personality. As Nuke’s star ascends, Crash’s streaks to the ground, and all Annie can do is watch with worried fascination.
Bull Durham is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest of all sports movies, and this reputation is well-earned. Writer-director Ron Shelton (who played a bit of professional baseball himself) crafts sharp dialogue, and the lead actors savor every syllable of it. Costner’s Crash walks and talks with a casual swagger, alternately tearing down Nuke before building him right back up again. Nuke’s bravado is vacant and fragile, and Robbins is hilarious as a man who screws up song lyrics and babbles to himself on the pitcher’s mound. (“Why’s he keep callin’ me ‘Meat’? I’m the guy drivin’ a Porsche.”) As a mercenary girlfriend and amateur guru, Sarandon gives Annie a blend of wild-eyed brilliance, vulnerable pride, and unbound passion. Few other sports movies have performances like this and script this good.
Perhaps the greatest thing about this movie is the ending. Audiences generally demand to feel good when they walk out of a sports film. Think of Hoosiers, or Rudy. People getting carried off the field. The soundtrack swelling as the screen fades to black. Bull Durhameschews all that for the poetry of realism: All things must end, and sometimes those endings come with a quiet melancholy. Bull Durham is an all-time sports movie because it shows how the game isn’t just a matter of throwing, catching, and hitting–it’s a study of human nature.
108 min. R.
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