Sportsflicks: Olmost Famous, Or The Three-Tool Appeal Of "Talent For The Game"

There were a great many baseball movies made between "Field Of Dreams" and "Moneyball." Most were not great. "Talent For The Game" isn't either, but it is endearingly weird.
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The 2015 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim season ended suddenly this past Sunday, after a wild sprint to the finish with the AL West champion Texas Rangers and the wild card Houston Astros. Although Game 162 ultimately disappointed, the previous game—a crazy-ass 11-10 win over Texas—will doubtlessly be replayed on Fox Sports West on Christmases and Thanksgivings to come.  

Angels fans, however, can take solace in that late-season push, not to mention the fact that their offseason viewing will be more than just repeated viewings of movies that nominally involve the Angels but were filmed nowhere near Anaheim proper.  Of this particular genre, which includes The Naked Gun and the 1994 Joseph Gordon-Levitt remake of Angels In The Outfield, one stands out in being almost good enough to warrant repeated viewing.

There was what can only be called a glut of baseball movies that arrived on the heels of Bull Durham, Field Of Dreams, and Major League. Everyone and their reunited father were trying to one-up Kevin Costner, Ron Shelton, or some combination of the two, and while some of these moves were better than others—and while even the ones Daniel Stern directed for less-discerning kids were pretty good—we probably could have done without 80% of the baseball movies made between 1990 and 2000. Most of these were pretty straightforward in their lameness. Sometimes, though, there is a film which is really lousy in parts but whose good parts offset it. Sometimes said film is about baseball. In one very particular case, it is also an Edward James Olmos star vehicle.

Talent For The Game is a bad baseball movie and a great baseball movie fighting each other, with neither side winning decisively. The director, Robert M. Young, has a resume full of weird little movies which often transcend their strangeness, like Dominick And Eugene and the “Pope on the loose” comedy Saving Grace. In 1989, Young directed Triumph Of The Spirit, a Holocaust boxing movie filmed on location at Auschwitz, which is honestly something I don’t know whether to praise or gape in disbelief over.

In Talent For The Game, Edward James Olmos is Virgil Sweet, a professional scout for an alternate universe California Angels that still played at Dodger Stadium into the 1990’s. Sweet is a magical realist, which is to say he’s a baseball scout. “Many years later, as he faced the radar gun, Edward James Olmos was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Sweet’s job is on the line after years of basking in Idaho’s majesty and not settling for anyone short of the next Nolan Ryan. Which is convenient as he indeed finds the next Nolan Ryan after his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere.

Sammy Bodeen has a blazing fastball and major issues with pitch control. Off the field, he’s as innocuous as the screwball comedy boyfriend the heroine dumps in favor of Cary Grant. Unfortunately for this Ralph Bellamy With A Heater, he is pressed into action during an otherwise meaningless game by the Angels’ yuppie owner, and the third act suffers for this Dan Snyderian twist of fate. A $60,000 a year job is on the line for Virgil, but even in 1991, those stakes were rather low. Burdened by hype and Bartolo Colon’s uniform number, Bodeen struggles against a bunt-happy Kansas City Royals team. So there’s your 2015 World Series prediction from me: Royals over Mets in five.

Lorraine Bracco is not at her best as Virgil’s dedicated life partner, but this was her first movie released after Goodfellas, and over a quarter century later, I’ll give her a pass because she stood up to that whore Janice Rossi in 2-R. Dennis Boutsikaris, of Batteries Not Included and The Dream Team, has a very brief cameo as a reporter, while Tom Bower—Marvin from Die Hard 2, although of course you knew that—plays Sammy’s father, a no-nonsense auto mechanic/country preacher; that he also played Richard Nixon’s father in Oliver Stone’s Nixon is neither here nor there, but suffice to say the guy is a pretty convincing dad. Randall Flagg The Dark Man, under the guise of actor Jamey Sheridan, plays Virgil’s no-nonsense superior, with Felton Perry, having survived the scourge of ED-209 in RoboCop, acting as the Angels manager.

Quite a few borderline major leaguers and former minor leaguers fill out the rosters for the Angels and the hypothetically good Kansas City Royals team they face at the end. Murphy Su’a gets the most screen time among them; as power hitter Dick Bortner, he uses a bat with the words “SCREW YOU” on it, and lets the Angels top brass know that Bodeen is the real thing. He’s joined by Chuck Fick, Sr., who also played the Angels catcher in The Naked Gun, as well as Lenny Randle, the late Todd Cruz, and a young Tony Tarasco; also Jordan Farmar’s dad shows up for some reason. The late, great Ken Brett is there to call the action, in the spot where Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg, Jim Palmer, Mel Allen, Dick Vitale, Tim McCarver and Dr. Joyce Brothers should be.

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Olmos and Lorraine Bracco have uncommon chemistry in this, well above and beyond the movie’s ambitions. This is not acting, as it happens: they met in the making of Talent For The Game, and eventually Bracco left Harvey Keitel to marry Olmos in 1994. However, the Keitel/Bracco split became real ugly, with nobody, especially Olmos, who was accused by a teenage girl of sexual misconduct years before, coming out of it squeaky clean. Olmos was never formally charged with anything, and he and Bracco separated a few years later, then finally divorced in 2002, before going on to make comebacks in their respective careers. Sometimes you have to separate actors and actresses from their work, especially when you discover this stuff more than halfway into writing your article. Sometimes you really, really need to do that.

One of Talent For The Game’s major flaws (as a movie) is in its portrayal of the incoming Angels owner. Terry Kinney as Gil Lawrence is too much of a yuppie, down to his ponytail and slicked back hair, who takes even goofy entrances too seriously. He comes off as a David Miscavige, when the movie really needed a Mark Cuban to add some sense of humanity. Which is saying something, actually. Jeff Corbett, who plays phenom Sammy Bodeen, has all the youthful innocence of a thirty-five year old, and it unfortunately works to this movie’s detriment. It’s not that he isn’t trying, but don’t give me Ken Forsch and tell me he’s Ben McDonald.

Talent For The Game is at its best when detailing interpersonal relationships amongst the backdrops of Chavez Ravine and, er, Idaho. There is a certain type of magic in the cinematography, that exploits the Gem State and too easily contrasts it with the smoggy ennui of Southern California. As far as sports movies filmed in Idaho go, Talent For The Game ranks up there with Napoleon Dynamite and the Busby Berkeley on Smurf Turf antics of Cremaster 1.

The dynamic between scouting and business did change, but not in the way Talent For The Game feared. Forward thinking owners doubled down rather than scaled back on scouting, using advanced statistics to build a more efficient team from the bottom up. Virgil Sweet would probably be fired anyway, because his sixth sense of determining a good player is exactly the sort of stuff they laughed about in Moneyball.

Talent For The Game lives and dies by the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. It is pretty much the baseball scene from The Naked Gun stretched out to ninety minutes or so, with almost as many jokes and a quarter of the plot as the latter film’s glorious third act. Both Talent For The Game and The Naked Gun are half a great baseball movie, but the former has the burden of being entirely about baseball.

I am not spoiling anything great by giving away the ending to this movie, but Edward James Olmos pulls a Leslie Nielsen by sneaking in costume to the Dodgerheim Stadium field, calming down his star pupil and, if not quite directly saving the Queen of England, at least saving the California Angels of Los Angeles some (further) embarrassment.

I have a soft spot for weird little films that somehow make it onto basic cable on a weekend afternoon, and Talent For The Game is no exception. The two times I’ve watched long swaths of this movie were well over a decade apart, but I knew both then and now that the time spent watching Edward James Olmos futz around in Idaho were not wasted, much like the hours spent by baseball scouts in trying to find The One. Talent For The Game is not The One, by a longshot. But it is still the sort of prospect you need to see to believe.


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