Stranger-than-fiction stories about fascinating people can still make one dud of a movie. That’s the case with Ben Lewin’s latest, The Catcher Was a Spy, one of those serious period dramas not memorable enough for release among the already bland pickings of award season offerings. The World War II drama follows real-life figure Moe Berg (Paul Rudd), a Jewish Ivy League graduate and major-league player (a catcher, if the title wasn’t clear) whose athleticism, intelligence, and fluency in several languages were tapped as assets by the pre-CIA Office of Strategic Services. After his time with the Boston Red Sox, Berg was tasked with assassinating German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), who was apparently building an atom bomb for the Nazis.
That all at least sounds like popcorn thriller material, but Lewin’s film is directionless, so muddied by Berg’s bloated résumé that the payoff never comes. Berg was an enigmatic and underappreciated Renaissance Man, and we leave the film not especially enlightened. It briefly hints at Berg’s closeted homosexuality — potentially the most interesting thread in the story — but The Catcher skitters off and avoids the topic, instead opting for unexciting play-by-plays as Berg travels from country to country.
Seeing Rudd in such a serious role may take a minute to adjust to, but any dramatic actor would also struggle with this script’s shallow character development. The Catcher Was a Spy is one of those curiously bad movies with a good cast where nothing makes much of an impression, unless you’re seething about yet another thankless role for Sienna Miller or laughing at Paul Giamatti’s alarming Dutch accent. (It’s like a parody movie within the movie.)
The Catcher Was a Spy
Directed by Ben Lewin
Opens June 22, IFC Center
Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.