Writer-director Ron Shelton's minor league baseball comedy Bull Durham (1988) is phenomenally popular among members of what philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen called "America's national religion": indeed, a poll by Sports Illustrated ranked it the Number One "Greatest Sports Movie" of all-time. More than 20 years on the witty, sexy film has aged quite well, outlasting the nearly equally long relationship between two of its stars, who fell for one another while filming the movie. More casual baseball fans and non-fans will still find much to like in Bull Durham, though a strong affinity with the game helps.
MGM's Blu-ray + DVD combo, distributed by Fox, is something of a disappointment. The transfer is okay, marginally, but unimpressive and to the naked eye not much of an improvement over the standard-def DVD. With the exception of a high-def (but grainy) trailer included on the Blu-ray disc, all of the extra features are ported over from the March 2008 20th Anniversary DVD edition, which is exactly what the DVD half of this combo is.
The film is set in Durham, North Carolina, home to the Durham Bulls, a minor league outfit with a pitiful record. As the film begins a crude, cocky, and uncultured rookie pitcher joins the team: Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), whose potential is undermined by a complete lack of discipline and inconsistent fastballs, which are as likely to bean the team mascot or announcers up in the broadcasting booth as get over home plate.
Veteran catcher "Crash" Davis (Kevin Costner), who spent all but a few days of his long professional career in the minors, is brought in to "mature the kid." He has his work cut out for him.
Meanwhile, groupie Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), who fancies herself a spiritual guide and mentor to the most promising of young, unformed men passing through Durham on their way to "the show" (Major League Baseball), each season selects one player as her personal "student" and season-long sex partner. This season she's chosen LaLoosh, who's only too happy to latch onto earthy Annie, despite her kooky psychobabble ways.
Crash thinks Annie's full of shit, but separately they work hard to mold LaLoosh - she gives him the nickname "Nuke," he call him "Meat" - into something like a polished professional. However, from the beginning is an undercurrent of sparks between Crash and Annie that cannot be denied forever.
Ron Shelton played minor league baseball for five years, and his experience lends Bull Durham its most appealing quality - a strong verisimilitude for the sights, smells, hopes, frustrations, and irresistible laid-back charm of the minor leagues, several galaxies away from the Big Corporation, soulless new ballparks of the majors. It's the kind of film that encourages the viewer to hop in the car and drive to the nearest minor league stadium. The late Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, has a sizable role in the film, playing himself.*
The relationship between philosophical Crash and dimwit LaLoosh is terrific. LaLoosh is an utter philistine, in it for the fast cars and loose women while Crash would probably pay the Bulls just to let him catch one more inning. His coaching of crude but pliable LaLoosh is funny and realistic; viewers can learn a lot about the strategies of pitching and pitcher-catcher relationships from watching this film.
The film and its eventual love-lust triangle are also notably sexy. At the time the film was made Sarandon was in her early-40s (Robbins, with whom she began a long-term relationship during filming, is 12 years her junior) and she oozes raw, smoldering sexuality. It's hard to imagine a mainstream Hollywood feature today both this explicit and with a 41-year-old actress in the lead.
While I like Bull Durham and especially admire Shelton's witty script - LaLoosh recalls comedy characters of an earlier age, like Robert Montgomery's boxer in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and it's easy to imagine this being made decades earlier by Billy Wilder** - something about the film never quite worked for this reviewer, which took a long time to figure out. The setting, the relationship between LaLoosh and Crash, among the players - all that is realistic and funny. But I never bought Sarandon's character. Not once. She's a funny, sexy, engagingly assertive character but I never believed her as a character, nor do I think a different actress could have won me over.
It looks great on paper. Consider Annie's opening narration: "I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me ...the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball." Even with Sarandon's fully-committed performance, when Annie's at the center of things I can't help but feel like an atheist watching The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Interesting and even entertaining, but hard to swallow.
Video & Audio
MGM's 1080p 25GB single-layered disc offers a barely-acceptable presentation that only rarely comes to life. It's not over-processed, just lifeless generally though a pleasing level of detail and film grain is visible sporadically. The 1.85:1 presentation is region "A" encoded. The Lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is a fine reworking of the original Dolby Stereo mix, but that's mostly in terms of the sounds of the stadium and the unusually well chosen selection of popular music on the soundtrack. An English Dolby Surround mix is included, along with Spanish Dolby Surround and French mono, along with subtitles in English, Spanish, Korean, and Cantonese.
The second disc, a standard-def DVD with a 2008 copyright date, reissues the following extras: two audio commentary tracks, one with Shelton, the other with Costner and Robbins, and varied featurettes: "The Greatest Show on Dirt," "Diamonds in the Rough," "Between the Lines - The Making of Bull Durham," a Kevin Costner profile, and "Sports Wrap."
If you're a baseball fan, Bull Durham is a must-see, while more casual sports fans will find much to like here, despite the rather lackluster transfer and absence of new extra features. Recommended.
* Patkin's Wikipedia entry amusingly notes that, "On July 20, 1969, he played to a crowd of four in Great Falls, Montana as most fans were home watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon."
** How about Tony Curtis as LaLoosh, Walter Matthau as Crash (rewritten as the team's coach), and Kim Novak as Annie?
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.