D: Brett Rapkin / 90m
Cast: Josh Duhamel, W. Earl Brown, Winter Ave Zoli, Ernie Hudson, Carlos Leal, Caroline Aaron, Claude Duhamel, Stefan Rollins, Wallace Langham
If you’ve heard of Bill Lee, one-time pitcher (and a left-handed pitcher at that) for the Boston Red Sox and the Montreal Expos, then chances are you also know about his drug-related background, his independence and need to challenge authority, plus his support for Maoist China, Greenpeace and school busing in Boston (amongst others). He was a well-known counterculture figure who appeared in an issue of the pro-marijuana magazine, High Times, and who once threatened to bite off the ear of an umpire in a 1975 World Series game. In later life, while still involved with baseball on a variety of levels, he was also asked to run for President of the United States on behalf of the Rhinoceros Party (his slogan: “No guns, no butter. Both can kill.”) If nothing else, Bill Lee has led an extraordinarily rich and eventful life.
Which makes Spaceman all the more confusing for focusing on the period that immediately follows the end of his professional career. Fired for one challenge to authority too many (walking out before a game in protest at the release of a fellow player), Lee (Duhamel) expects to get right back in the game, so confident is he that his unique skills as a pitcher will be more than enough to offset his off-the-pitch behaviour. But when the offers don’t come rolling in, Lee finds himself at a loss. His agent (and friend), Dick Dennis (Brown), keeps getting the runaround when he tries to contact the big league teams, and soon the message gets through: nobody wants him because everyone is tired of his shenanigans. He’s also thirty-six, and time isn’t on his side.
Lee’s also trying to do right by his three kids. He’s separated from his wife (Zoli) and can only have them over by arrangement. He’s as unorthodox a parent as he is a baseball player, but his relationships with his children are one of the few aspects of his life that he gets right. Otherwise, Lee smokes a lot of weed, drinks a lot of booze, and dreams of making it back into the Big Leagues. But the offers don’t come, his eventual divorce sees him deprived of any visitation rights, and to cap it all he receives an invitation to play for a Canadian seniors team. Intrigued and offended at the same time, Lee attends one of their matches, and helps them win. His need to play keeps him with the team for a while, until Dennis swings him a tryout for San Fran at their training facility in Phoenix. Lee motors all the way down there, only for the head coach (Langham) to dismiss him, and for Lee to learn that he won’t ever be taken back into the Big Leagues. A coaching offer comes along too, but the lure of playing sees him contemplating returning to Canada and resuming playing in the Seniors’ league.
Director Brett Rapkin has been here before. In 2003, he and fellow movie maker Josh Dixon joined Lee on a trip he was making to Cuba. The resulting footage made up the bulk of the documentary Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey (2006). Ten years on and Rapkin’s decision to revisit Lee’s life (or at least a part of it) has led to his making a movie that starts off strong with Lee’s determination to stand up for his teammate, but then it settles into an amiable groove that is pleasant to watch but eventually becomes so placid that not even the scene where he loses his visitation rights scores any dramatic depth.
By focusing on a period when Lee wasn’t playing baseball, it seems that Rapkin (who also wrote the screenplay) has chosen to explore the nature of the man behind the legend. But when the man is the legend, there’s little room for any real exploration, and so we have several moments where Lee informs anyone who’ll listen that he needs to play baseball, several scenes where Lee mooches around at home in his Y-fronts, and even more scenes set in a bar where he squanders his time in playing the wounded, unappreciated hero. With the introduction of the Canadian seniors team, the movie does find something more interesting to focus on, but even then it continues to be more amiable than sharply detailed.
As the Spaceman, Duhamel makes up for his appearance in the dreadful Misconduct (2016) by infusing Lee with a great deal of charm and affability. The employment of a scruffy beard adds to the character, while his scenes with Zoli reveal the pain Lee is suffering at the collapse of his marriage (something that didn’t happen in real life). But on the whole, Duhamel has little to work with, and while he’s able to give a warm, occasionally disarming performance, he’s too confined by the conventional nature of the material and the flatly handled narrative. The supporting cast have even less to hang a performance on, with only Zoli making any kind of impression, playing Lee’s wife with a brittle dismay that seems all too appropriate.
While the movie as a whole is affectionate in its view of Lee and his anti-establishment outbursts, and his self-aggrandising, it does make an effort to remind viewers that for all his grandstanding he was an exceptional pitcher. At the San Fran tryouts, and before he’s sent on his way, Lee’s gift with a baseball is used to outclass an arrogant batsman, a scene that trades on an overly familiar scenario in sports movies while doing so with a valid sincerity (look closely at any shots of Lee pitching though and you’ll see that the shot has been reversed; Duhamel isn’t a leftie). Sadly, there are too few scenes of Lee doing what he did best, but thankfully, when there are they lift the movie out of the doldrums.
Rating: 5/10 – not a bad movie per se, but one that never aspires to be anything more than good-natured, Spaceman struggles to find any dramatic traction that might keep an audience from losing interest; ultimately, Rapkin’s debut feature shows him working at a purposely even keel and forgetting to add some highs and lows to give texture to his otherwise genial look at a baseball hero and his fall from the Big Leagues.