Film

Hardass Pitcher Bill ‘Spaceman’ Lee’s Biopic Should Be Benched

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Baseball is boring. And I’m saying this as someone who loves and plays the game, as someone who’s watched all of Ken Burns’s Baseball, and as someone who agrees with Red Barber that “Baseball is dull only to dull minds” — we’re all gonna be a little dull in a game that lasts an average of three hours. The glory of a narrative movie about baseball, though, is that the director gets to zoom in on only the most show-stopping plays and showcase all the behind-the-scenes antics and characters that make the sport what it is. But Brett Rapkin’s debut feature, Spaceman, a biopic about one of the sport’s most controversial and outrageous figures, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, whiffs on the sports, the action, the story, the dialogue, the acting, the cinematography, the production design, the costuming, the humor — all of it — and somehow turns a potentially compelling character study into one big yawning seventh-inning stretch.

For reasons that probably have more to do with licensing and budget than anything else, the film focuses on Lee’s post-MLB career, after the pitcher got let go from the Montreal Expos in 1982 for being the kind of guy who condescendingly quotes Buckminster Fuller to his manager while physically threatening him. The guy’s a loose cannon whose only interaction with his three children is when he’s hungover and making them work as his agents, writing letters to every team in an attempt to score a contract.

Normally, when portraying a total shitshow of a person, filmmakers might come up with a few scenes that allow him to redeem himself to get the audience on his side. Or, God, at least a few cool Wild Thing–esque game moments to distract from the fact that every bone in this guy’s well-built body is screaming out for some psychotherapy, stat. Rapkin instead takes an odd and ill-advised route, supplanting any hint of action with animated summaries of everything that happens, aping James Blagden’s excellent short about Dock Ellis’s LSD-fueled no-hitter to the point of near-infringement. (You can see Blagden’s Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No on YouTube.) Maybe Josh Duhamel, who plays Lee, was just that bad at throwing and hitting. But, Jesus, even Corbin Bernsen learned to play for Major League.

Throughout the film, the wrong characters are in focus, inexplicable close-ups abound, and Rapkin’s got the camera on rails, moving and panning for seemingly no reason. The pacing is off, spending far too long on inconsequential scenes, with every auxiliary character remaining a cardboard cutout Duhamel spouts intellectual nonsense at until a documentary-style voiceover bit butts in and leapfrogs to the next scene, where the same thing will happen. We get it; Lee reads books and likes drugs.

Still, with all that went wrong in this strikeout picture, the most annoying aspect may be that Rapkin had Lee’s ex-wife, who doesn’t even get a name, say over the phone to Lee, “You’ve been out there fourteen years. It’s time to come home,” which is the second time I’ve seen a token female character say that to a male protagonist in as many months. (If you haven’t seen Amy Schumer’s sketch from earlier this year that lays waste to the ridiculous cliché of women having to tell men to “come home,” you should.) Spaceman isn’t Bad News Bears; it’s just bad.

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