Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Secretly Awesome - Mr. Baseball

Release Date: October 2, 1992
Director: Fred Schepisi
Writers: Gary Ross, Kevin Wade, Monte Merrick
Cast: Tom Selleck, Ken Takakura, Dennis Haysbert, Aya Takanashi
Box Office: $20,883,046
Rotten Tomatoes: 13%

Tom Selleck plays aging, dick-head first baseman Jack Elliot, a veteran Yankee who gets traded off to Japan to play for the Dragons in Mr. Baseball. The Dragons' uptight manager, Uchiyama (played wonderfully by Ken Takakura), brings Elliot on to help them win the pennant and save his job, but stubbornness and ego get in the way, and Elliot ends up being more of a problem than a solution, bringing embarrassment and shame to the team, goofing around rather than owning up to the hole in his swing and accepting Coach's advice on how to fix it.

Everything in that description spells out hack premise, I know, and I didn't even mention that Elliot dates Uchiyama's daughter, Hiroko, without realizing who her father is. With formula working against it, somehow Mr. Baseball works. An asshole is almost always fun to watch, especially when played by Tom Selleck, who takes cockiness, womanizing, and sarcasm as far as they can reasonably go without falling over the edge.

What's different about Mr. Baseball is that the jokes rarely come at the expense of Japan, but instead signify Elliot's unwillingness to adapt. Sure, there are a few bits that poke fun at Japanese culture, like the commercial Elliot is forced to do in which all he says is "Big hit! Happy body!" followed by a series of shots of him in random costumes. But for the most part, the film is genuine in its portrait of Japan, and instead makes a buffoon out of Elliot's big-headedness. One scene has him storming out of a business meeting like a child, only to turn around and ask where his apartment is; another has him tired of being told the rules, sarcastically remarking, "What's next? Is someone going to tell me how to take a crap?" followed by a cut to him staring at a toilet and shouting, "Hey, how do I take a crap?"

What's also nice is that, while for the first half of the film, Uchiyama seems a bit like a stock character, a device to antagonize Elliot, he is actually fleshed out into a real person when we see him out of uniform. Up until that point, we see him as strict, stubborn, and unwilling to take risks on the field that might make him lose face, which makes us side with Elliot, who attempts to liven things up, playing pranks and telling jokes. But when Elliot goes to meet Hiroko's family, and we see Uchiyama gardening in the backyard, our perspective changes.

The rest follows the formula, coming down to the big game against the Dragons' rivals for the pennant, Uchiyama's job, and Elliot's chances of returning to America. It's pretty standard, though the baseball scenes are pretty impressive, mixing fake baseball with actual crowds, which gives the games a real feel. Mr. Baseball may not be a classic, but it's totally underrated, and may even be worth watching just for the scene in which Selleck is told he has to shave his mustache.

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