Thursday, February 22, 2024

Sports Watch: The Sandlot (1993)

Watched:  02/21/2024
Format:  Disney+
Viewing:  First
Director:  David Mickey Evans
Selection:  Jamie

I was wrapping up my senior year of high school when The Sandlot (1993) hit.  At the time, I was more interested in adult-oriented movies, and not at all into baseball, so the movie came and went without much notice on my part.  I'd have forgotten about it completely, but it's since become an inter-generational favorite, especially with baseball fans (which is by far the best sport to put in a movie), and has become a meme-generating perennial.  "You're killing me, Smalls" has escaped the fandom of the film and made it's way into pop culture.

Jamie pitched it for our evening viewing, and wanting to know what the hubbub was about, we gave it a whirl.

Absolutely, I was reminded of the era, circa 1980-84, when my family lived near a cul-de-sac in Spring, Texas, in the halcyon summer days when kids were kicked out of the house after breakfast, drank out of hoses, and would set up games of baseball to play all afternoon.  We used the cul-de-sac as our diamond, and our certainty we were terrible at baseball ensured we weren't putting out any windows.  My neighborhood was chock full of kids around our age, so getting a handful together to play was never a big deal.  In some ways, I was primed.

The Sandlot takes place in 1962-ish because this is the folksy memories of a sports-fan who saw a few key movies (A Christmas Story, Stand By Me, and certainly Field of Dreams) and then wrote a conflict free movie that borrows pieces from those movies without really giving anything back, and creating a movie version of his own youth, I'd guess.  Unfortunately, the movie has thinly conceived characters, and no concept of arcs or development because it does not have anything resembling well-defined issue for our characters to resolve that would make them grow as humans.  It doesn't do anything with the period setting (ignoring the racism of the 1960's altogether), and seems to exist in this period to make sure a collectible could have personal meaning to the owner. 

There was probably a good movie in here somewhere, where you knew who these kids were and why we should care about them, but instead, as the film plays out, it's more a random assortment of scenarios played out by kids you never get to know - including the lead and ostensible second lead.   At just around 100 minutes, the movie feels roughly like 140 minutes.

When there is conflict, there's a lot of telling and not showing.  Ie: we know something is a problem because the voice-over, 1-part Stand By Me/ 1-part A Christmas Story, tells us this is a problem, but not exactly why it is a problem or what will occur if the problem is not resolved.  There's some vague threats about "maybe my step-dad will care about me even less", but even that seems ambiguous to the point of having no weight.  

Like A Christmas Story, the film wants to build on a series of recollections, driving a path which ultimately points somewhere, but the problem is:  there's no Red Ryder BB Gun at the heart of the story.  It just plods along until the kid makes a mistake that makes the last 1/3rd of the movie happen.  And, in a baseball movie, there's not even a big game at the end.  It's a dog chasing a kid for seven minutes or so.  Which is a choice.

Our plot, such as it is:  a kid's mom (Karen Allen!) recently remarried.  New Dad (Dennis Leary) has moved the family to Southern California.  Our kid (Tom Guiry) is a sweet nerd who wants to connect with his step-dad, but step-dad is distracted with work.  Kid falls in with the neighbor kids, automagically learns baseball after setting up for the entire first act he doesn't know anything about the sport and is terrified of his own shadow.  They play ball.  A series of vignettes occur.  In one, one of the boys molests a lifeguard.  In another, a uniformed team challenges our team, and then loses in the next sequence to our team.  

At around the 2/3rd mark, we get something like a plot as our lead - who has somehow, against all fucking odds, never heard of Babe Ruth - steals step-dad's signed Babe Ruth ball to use at the sandlot.  The ball goes over the fence, and into the maw of a giant, scary dog.

Then we spend, like, 30 minutes trying to get the ball back, doing everything but the two obvious things of jumping the fence and/ or knocking on the door.  Why don't they?  Because then the movie couldn't happen.  

And, look, this is where I call bullshit.  

There's 9 kids at the sandlot, and if you ever knew 9 kids playing a game, *someone* is going to get that ball, either hopping the fence while kids distract the dog, or by knocking on the door and explaining their situation.  Especially if something lost has any value to it.  

What the movie wants to do is paint a picture of being relatable, and this is not it.  It all feels weirdly false, scene after scene.  What makes Stand By Me and A Christmas Story work is that it all feels *true*.  It may be heightened or off balance through the narration, but we can see with our own eyes what really happened in A Christmas Story, and the narration in Stand By Me is so sparse, it only really serves as book ends and as a quick pitch of exposition.  And Stand By Me is about something, and this movie is about...  playing baseball one summer.  Back before helicopter parents would have stopped all that and neighborhood fb groups would have worried about kids out and un-supervised.  

But, yeah, it just winds through these anecdotes.  The kids puking everywhere - clearly lifted from Stand By Me, the kid telling the story about the crazy junkyard dog - clearly lifted from Stand By Me, and the eventual reveal that the dangerous old man and the angry dog are actually nice - clearly lifted from every movie since the dawn of time.

That the movie decides it needs to be about this @#$%ing ball retrieval is mind-bending.  We could have spent that time knowing the kids beyond their names.  We could have found out what each kid's deal was.  The movie even suggests that Benny is maybe fighting something inside.  He is not.  He just really likes baseball.  Why not make the Babe Ruth ball something step-dad is okay with giving up as his new kid uses it to win the big game?  There's got to be a dozen other better endings.  Endings that are a culmination of baseball-related activities, not trying to get your ball out of a dog's mouth.

The kid doesn't even really say much about the ball other than that he needs it back.  Which is obvious.  But a little moment to give it weight would have been nice.

Anyway - they can't really get the ball back because it's been eaten by a friendly Mastiff.

Eventually James Earl Jones opens the door and they briefly talk baseball, and if you liked Field of Dreams, man, is this movie trying to steal some thunder from the monologue in that movie.

Maybe the weirdest part of the movie is that our lead has no arc.  Things happen, but I can't say he grows from his experience.  Nor does anyone else.  It's just, like "hey, here's some shit that happened one summer".  

And it's positioned from the very, very weird perspective of the kind of person who I always assume gets into sports journalism who wasn't an elite athlete looking for a second career.  If you're expecting a movie where things happen:  sorry.  In this movie, the lead is going to just note his friend Benny really loves baseball.  And, wow, at the end - he's an MLB pro!  Facing no hardship or obstacles to speak of!  He's just there.  And our lead is watching him!  

What the @#$% did I just watch?

The other two notable kid characters are that one red-headed chubby kid who was in stuff in the mid-90's who is funny and did give us the "you're killing me, Smalls" line now easily deployed to friends and co-workers.  The other kid is a bespectacled boy who feigns drowning to get mouth-to-mouth that he might lay a smacker on the far more mature lifeguard - what we call "assault" in 2024.  I assume people loved this sequence in 1993?  Now, it's just kinda gross.  Especially with the coda that "she liked it" and "they now have 9 kids".  Which... wow, movie.

What's maybe craziest about the movie and it's refusal to tell us anything about the characters is that we never know how or why Dennis Leary has a Babe Ruth-signed ball.  Or why he has a study full of baseball stuff, like trophies.  Did he play ball?  Did he see Babe Ruth as a kid?  Did a dying friend give him their ball?  This shit is important, and can and should be in a kid's movie.  But here, all we know is that Dennis Leary's character has successfully woo'd Karen Allen, so I assume he's awesome.

Despite everything above, I didn't hate the movie, but I'd suggest there's some Space Jam Fallacy at play here.  I don't get quite how this movie got made with this one guy as writer and director, but my assumption is:  kid actors are cheap, the sets are mostly an empty lot shot in daylight, and they use adult talent sparingly.  And faking 1962 in 1992 wasn't *that* hard.

The kids aren't terrible, and they're not annoying.  The dog stuff is pretty cute.  But, yeah...  what maybe should have been a minor VHS staple has become a "classic" and it's a little baffling how or why.

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