By Stephanie Zacharek
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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Movie actors of Nick Nolte's clout (and gender) get to decide right down to the last wrinkle and half-ounce of muscle or flab how they want to age on-screen. Nolte, weary and grizzled even in his youth, seems to have been prepping for his twilight days since he was 35 in 1976.
That was the year the gruff-voiced, prematurely weathered Nebraska native and college football stud slouched toward stardom in the soap miniseries Rich Man, Poor Manplaying the poor man, naturally. From there, the physical and psychic poundings of Vietnam (Who'll Stop the Rain) and the pro ball gridiron (North Dallas Forty) swiftly supplied the young actor with the limp, the growl, and the short fuse he needed to portray what would become his characteristic theme: the merciless ravages of experience upon the male body and spirit. Now, at 65, he needs only his ageand his integrityto achieve hunched realism rather than aerobicized, plasticized uplift.
Near the end of Off the Black, a disarmingly droll and insightful indie in which Nolte plays a high school baseball umpire and failed dad, there's a short scene of his character Ray Cook straining once more to wriggle his abundant girth into the ump's uniform. Nolte, never to be mistaken for Heath Ledger, dares to appear naked in this scene, and it doesn't look as though there's a single stretch of toned tissue on his entire bodywhich is no small measure of the shape he's in as an actor. Where most sexagenarian starsHarrison Ford (64), Michael Douglas (62), and Sylvester Stallone (60) among themwill do anything to show they can still crack the whip or get it up or at least get in the ring for one more round, Nolte is a lot more interested in showing that he can't, that the battered body (or mind) simply won't allow it. If Rocky Balboa, opening later this month, is an absurdist fantasy of senior-age machismo, Off the Blacknamed for the pitch that narrowly misses the markcomes infinitely closer to the reality of exhausted masculinity. It's a ninth-inning movie wherein the ump's only triumph is another brutally honest call.
The first of these unpopular decisions"ball four"is issued, in Nolte's patented rasp, at the start of the film. The crestfallen pitcher is Dave (Trevor Morgan), a sad-eyed, shaggy-haired 17-year-old in a small industrial town who comes to the crotchety ump's house at night with two friends, some toilet paper, and a brick. Old Ray, whose fridge tellingly sports a yellow Post-it note that reads "3 beer limit," pulls a gun on the fleeing trio's straggling member, peels off the kid's ski mask to discover a flipped-out Dave, and seizes an opportunity to put the young pitcher to work as an indentured servant. Ray toys with young Dave like a cat swatting a mouse, forcing him to do mundane physical labor as penance for trespassing and vandalism. But the relationship expands to include the occasional fishing excursion and adventure in over-limit brewsky swilling. Dave even agrees to attend Ray's 40-year high school reunion, posing as his son in order for the ump to look, or perhaps feel, accomplished.
This old-lion-bonds-with-young-buck material sounds a mite facile and formulaic in description, but Off the Black, written and directed by James Ponsoldt, reveals its relevant details slowly and cautiouslyas men of any age generally do. As in Affliction, another Nolte-driven study of masculinity, the awkwardness of the men's attempts at emotional expression appears inherited. "What did he do?" Ray asks Dave, referring to his old man. "Nothing" is the aptly clipped reply. For his part, Ray is doubly afflicted: Neither his long-estranged son nor his Alzheimer's-suffering dad (Michael Higgins) is able to swing at the ump's humorously desperate conversational pitches.
Off the Black belongs on the shelf beside recent peers Spring Forward and Old Joy; it's not as deep or resonant as those two, but despite extraneous supporting characters (i.e., women), it's likewise concerned with lamenting, and dare we say expanding the limitations of men's communication skills. Here both umpire and actor call 'em as they see 'em.
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