POOR SPORTS

As Ty Cobb in Ron Shelton's new biopic, Tommy Lee Jones gets to wave a pistol and vomit blood. What kind of an actor would he be if he could resist that? He doesn't blow the chance--he's remarkable as the man who, most commentators agree, was both the greatest baseball player of all time and one of the biggest rat-bastards of all time, as well: an utterly arrogant, self-impressed, murderous, openly racist, abusively sexist, certifiable SOB. Once upon a time, Jones might have been described as a restrained but forceful actor--intense yet understated and likable. That was back in the days of Coal Miner's Daughter and Eyes of Laura Mars, and some of his remarkable television work. Somewhere in there, though--maybe around the time that people began discussing him in connection with a certain award--Jones discovered the joys of overacting.

This hasn't been altogether unfortunate. Jones really was good to have around in the wildly overrated The Fugitive, because there wasn't much else going on. But in several performances since then, Jones' hammy effects have grown increasingly extreme, and increasingly irritating, topping out with an embarrassingly bad performance in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. In Cobb, Jones grins wolfishly at his surroundings, as if to say, "My, but that scenery looks tasty!" But he doesn't thrash around this time--his Ty Cobb is a large-scale, broad-stroke portrait, no question, but it isn't blurry or self-indulgent. There's a hard, scary focus to it, along with dashes of baleful irony that are very nearly Shakespearean. The clarity of the performance is fortunate, because the film that Shelton has built around it is flimsy.

There's nothing very wrong with Shelton's basic premise for dramatizing Cobb's life, other than that it will disappoint those looking for a conventional baseball picture--it takes place in 1960, Cobb's dotage, with few flashbacks to his tough, troubled youth, and only one extended sequence taking place during a ballgame. Trying to avoid the standard sports-bio approach, Shelton came up with the fairly clever idea of structuring Cobb as a buddy/road comedy, the "buddies" in question being Cobb and Al Stump (Robert Wuhl), a freelance sportswriter retained to ghost a whitewashed, official-story autobiography of the Georgia Peach.

Stump--"Stumpy," Cobb calls him--accompanies Cobb from his lodge in Nevada to a testimonial dinner Cobb is being given at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Along the way, Stump listens to the story of Cobb's life, secretly writes the appalling truth about the idol at the same time he writes Cobb's version, and tussles with which version he should publish. That Stump eventually published both versions demonstrates the transparent phoniness of this attempt at a moral quandary. But showing Cobb as an old man--bitter and heartsick, yet still intelligent, energetic and dangerously unstable--is a good one, and so is using Stump as his foil. Wuhl, usually a rather repellent actor, finds the perfect role as this wormy mediocrity (the character, not necessarily the real guy, of course), trying not to suck up too egregiously but also trying not to alienate this career-making subject.

Cobb arguably goes on a little too long, but it's made and acted with such skill that there was no point at which I wasn't entertained. It was a far more watchable picture than I expected, and yet, in the end, Shelton doesn't have a mean enough streak to give Ty Cobb--or baseball, for tolerating Ty Cobb--the deserved beaning. Shelton, who wrote and/or directed Bull Durham, The Best of Times and White Men Can't Jump, is too smart to buy into sports wholeheartedly, but he's too sentimental not to buy into it halfheartedly. No matter how you slice Cobb, it comes down to the suggestion that we should accept its protagonist as a hero, at least in some abstract way, because he was a brilliant athlete. It's possible to pity this movie's Cobb, and even to enjoy his raffishness at times. But the notion that his prowess on the diamond proves that at some level he must have been humanly admirable is ethically silly. It also contributes to the load of sanctimonious crap that threatens to wreck baseball for good, turning it from a charmingly ephemeral pastime into a sticky nostalgic myth. Cobb and Stump (sounds like a hillbilly comedy team) are the only big roles, but a couple of the other actors deserve quick mention. Lolita Davidovich plays a Reno cigarette girl whom Cobb humiliates. Davidovich finds the desperate humor in her brief, awful scenes, and manages to avoid being humiliated herself. Lou Myers is very funny as Cobb's black ex-house servant, who has quit his job in defiant outrage, and Eloy Casados and Paula Rudy appear, briefly but effectively, as Louis Prima and Keely Smith, respectively.

Finally, having endured a grueling couple of hours in the company of Cobb (and Cobb), make sure to stay for the end titles, which are accompanied by Sister Wynona Carr singing her rousing gospel tune "The Ball Game." After all the seaminess, it's a refreshing, amusing breath of virtue.

 
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