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Major League (1989)::rating::3::rating::3

Major League is a bawdy, disposable little sports movie.  Long ago, I filed it away as Porky’s at the Dugout.  And thirty-plus years out, it’s still all of those things.  At the same time, I enjoyed revisiting Major League way more than I thought.  For all its raunch and silliness, this movie also has a surprising amount of heart.  Think The Bad News Bears, but with more dick jokes.

The story plays like an older, beer-bellied cousin to Ted Lasso:  A snarky, gold-digging widow (Margaret Whitton) inherits the hapless Cleveland Indians, which she regards as though someone left her a hamper of dirty underwear.  She immediately launches a scheme to tank the upcoming season and relocate the team to Miami.  This involves assembling a Washington Generals-style roster of bumbling goobs who can take her new franchise to the barrel’s bottom.

As for that lineup, chances are you already know ’em and love ’em!  Charlie Sheen gets cast completely against type as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, a boozy, mentally unstable pitcher.  When we first meet Vaughn, he’s fielding the Indians’ offer on a prison pay phone.  (Did they ever have pay phones in prison?  Were convicts allowed to carry loose change?  So many questions!)  Then there’s Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger).  He’s the washed-up catcher with bad knees and a heart of gold.  Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) is the flashy speedster in centerfield who specializes in stealing bases.  Rounding out this rundown rogues’ gallery are Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), whose ego matches his ineptitude, and Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) the team’s slugger and resident voodoo practitioner.

Anybody who’s seen enough sports movies can guess where League goes from here.  You’re gonna get two montages:  In the first, the team fumbles its way into the cellar.  They make bush league fielding errors.  The fans boo.  Sportswriters dump all over them.  By the second montage, things are looking up.  The boys hit every play.  Attendance begins to rise.  Local media jumps on the bandwagon.

That’s all fairly predictable, but League stays surprisingly palatable.  Thanks mainly go to the cast of future all-stars:  Sheen and Berenger build a similar dynamic to Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, with Vaughn as the batshit pitcher and Taylor as his world-weary catcher.  Bernsen is perfect as the preening peacock who’s done nothing to earn his strut.  Bob Uecker fires a few zingers as Harry Doyle, the nonplussed voice of Indians’ radio.  Finally, James Gammon gives the film a lot of its grizzled charm as Lou Brown, the team’s rock-solid manager.  Only Rene Russo gets truly wasted as Lynn, Taylor’s old flame.  Her character only exists as a barometer for the team’s fortunes.  When they’re down and out, she’s chilly and unobtainable.  When the guys start winning, she suddenly warms up.  Russo’s a fine actress, and she deserves better.

We’ll call that a small quibble.  Major League never pretends to be Pride of the Yankees.  Writer-director David S. Ward (who  also gave us The Sting, believe it or not) delivers the cinematic equivalent of ballpark nachos and an ice cold lager. As the film builds to its inevitable Big Game, I became way more emotionally invested than I probably should have.  If you’re seeking a nutty dose of 80s nostalgia, Major League holds up surprisingly well.

106 min.  R.  Hulu.

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