Directed by Fred Schepisi
Written by Gary Ross and Kevin Wade and Monte Merrick
The Baseball marathon is beginning to turn the corner into the Golden era of the baseball film, which uniquely coincides with the 1994 MLB Players Strike, oddly enough. We will see with some coming films the transition into the idea that the sport is a kids game, meant to be enjoyed and played for fun rather than focused on as a profession, and one in which the players are greedy men trying to make as much money as possible, ignoring the fact that they get to play a child’s game every day and get paid to do it. With Mr. Baseball, a similar thing happens with the idea of green and entitlement in the game of baseball, but as perhaps the first film I might classify as a pre-strike film, Mr. Baseball lacks in many categories, most of all in being fun and entertaining.
Mr. Baseball refers to Jack Elliot (Tom Selleck), a former World Series MVP, power hitting first baseman for the New York Yankees. Elliot, however, is aging and coming off a terrible season where he hit less than .250. As a result, the team, with eyes set on the future in the form of a rookie played by Frank Thomas, sell Elliot to the only team willing to take him, the Chinichi Dragons of the Japanese League. Expecting a quick turnaround the big leagues, Elliot begrudgingly goes to Japan where he clashes with culture, the manager (Ken Takakura), and the sport, but manages to find companions in fellow American Max (Dennis Haysbert) and Hiroko, a cute Japanese woman he begins to fall for. But the questions remains whether Jack will swallow his ego, train hard and play the type of team ball that will get him back in the Major Leagues in America.
For what could be a rich setting for a baseball film, Mr. Baseball turns out to unfold with very little character arc in its main character, Jack Elliot. Some of this may have to do with Tom Selleck, whose performance mirrors his sleepwalking character, as neither Elliot nor Selleck seem to put any effort into the role, leaving a rather large charismatic void in the center of a film where charisma could have buoyed the dichotomy of an American in Japan. The rest of Jack Elliot’s problems come from the poor writing of the character, however. Elliot is a jerk in the beginning of the film, a jerk in the middle, and believe it or not, I believe he is still a jerk at the end of it. This complete lack of transformation leaves us with a rather bland, emotionless and uneventful film.
The greatest strength the film holds over the viewer is in the clashing cultures of America and Japan. This element is played to some success, certainly, but the compromises made by Elliot and his nemesis manager Uchiyama seem swayed in the favor of Elliot (re: he’s still a jerk in the end). The little bit of true drama that the film offers is unfortunately as manufactured as the romantic element to the film. Elliot begins smitten with Hiroko, but the relationship is never sold, rather manufactured for the purposes of a romantic interest and dramatic intrigue. Neither character grows throughout the film, and we never learn enough about either to understand who they are or why they may be attracted to one another. For this reason, Hiroko is an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only she is the dream girl of the screenwriter, inserted not to serve the purpose of the male lead, but to serve the purpose of inserting drama into an otherwise uninteresting and uneventful film.
Perhaps the film’s greatest offense is the baseball action itself. Something I haven’t spent a lot of time on in this marathon is speaking to the realism of the baseball action. For the most part it has been good, or unremarkable, but with Mr. Baseball I noticed that the action seemed to be edited around, as though none of the actors could truly play the game, which is sad especially considering Dennis Haysbert, whose turn in Major League proved his star power and ability to play, is buried under the script and the writers inability to get him involved in the story in any meaningful way. The result is a rather bland, innocuous film whose purpose is better served playing in the background while you do chores around the house rather than featured front in center for a movie night.