When I wrote reviews for The Pointer, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, I typically focused on a pair of films, doing my level best to thematically tie them together. As my rudimentary explanation of auteur theory here makes clear, there were plenty of instances when my attempts yielded strained results.
The artistic success or failure of a film is often attributed chiefly to the director. Despite the acknowledged importance of fine writing and convincing acting, the director shoulders the majority of criticism because it is their job to tie everything together and strengthen the weak spots. Two recent films demonstrate that even though a director may be talented, making a movie come together just right is a very difficult task.
HERO: The screenplay by David Webb People (Unforgiven) serves us the makings for a wonderfully scathing contemporary comedy. Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman) is a small-time Chicago crook who stumbles into a heroic situation when a commercial airliner crash lands in the middle of a driving rainstorm. LaPlante bumps open the plane’s jammed emergency exit and then, after most of the fifty-four passengers have made their way off the burning craft, he ventures in himself to save a few people.
Though Bernie has done the heroic act, he doesn’t fit the standard preconception of who a hero is. He only save ace television reporter Gale Gayley (Geena Davis) after first snatching her purse. When Bernie leaves the site of the wreck without claiming credit, Gayley and het television station offer a million dollar reward for the anonymous hero, dubbed the “Angel of Flight 104.” But before Bernie can come forward, another man claims to be the hero and grabs all the glory. The twist is that the impostor makes a far better hero in the eyes of the media than Bernie ever could. As played by Andy Garcia, John Bubber is an articulate, soft-spoken, compassionate individual who represents everything we aspire to be.
Director Stephen Frears (The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons) has a sharp hold on the major elements driving this crafty story, effectively portraying the media fervor the follows the quest for and discovery of this hero. However, there’s not much Frears can do with some of the clumsy elements in Peoples’s script. Bernie’s relationship with his ex-wife and son and a romantic attraction Gayley feels toward her supposed savior are so weakly written that they come across as half-hearted diversion that take up time rather than provide important insights into the nature of these characters.
As usual, Geena Davis turns in a solid performance and proves to be one of the most intriguing actresses to watch. Garcia’s regular onscreen blandness suits him well for the role of reluctant media superstar, but Hoffman seems to be having trouble getting a handle on his character, a flaw that occasionally undermines important scenes. Frears pulls it all together as best he can, but there are a few aspects of this movie that are simply too awkward to fit them in. He’s a hero for even trying.
MR. BASEBALL: As opposed to Stephen Frears, who leaves his mark on all of his movies, director Fred Schepisi has a style that’s fairly nondescript. With sharply written films like Roxanne and The Russia House that approach works well, letting the words push the point without too much muddling. But with something like Mr. Baseball, it’s a detriment that keeps him from elevating it over the level of mildly entertaining fluff.
The movie follows an aging Major League baseball player (Tom Selleck) who gets dealt to a team in Japan to keep his floundering career going. The Japanese have different attitudes toward America’s national pastime, playing it with solemn seriousness and stern respect. Hard-playing Selleck has a hard time adjusting to the new style of ball, and the culture clashes provide the movie with its few interesting passages. Otherwise, it’s familiar romances, conflicts with authority, and tepid comedy. Plus, Schepisi never makes the baseball games themselves very exciting, so for much of the time this movie just lies there like a slow grounder that’s died in the grass.