A SWING AND A MISS; Kevin Costner's slump continues with 'For Love of the Game,' a vain and tiresome excuse for a baseball movie.


There are two types of people in this world. Those who get Kevin Costner and those who don't.

Those of us in the latter club believe that Costner hasn't made a watchable movie since "Bull Durham," and we scratch our heads at our friends and loved ones who will watch this blandest and most wooden of all movie stars in anything, including "Waterworld," "The Postman" and "Message in a Bottle."

"For Love of the Game" will do nothing to clear this mystery up.

Costner's fans will no doubt adore this two-hour-long orgy of Costner close-ups, slow-motion shots and other bits of the actor's metastasizing vainglory. Hard-core romantics will appreciate the movie's mawkishly soapy melodrama, and die-hard baseball fans will enjoy nine endless innings of America's favorite pasttime.

But the rest of us will long for a seventh-inning stretch, which is pointedly missing from this paean to the country's most mythologized sport. That lack of respite only makes this movie's self-seriousness and self-indulgence that much more plain.

Costner plays Billy Chapel, a pitcher who has worshiped at the altar of baseball since he was a tot, playing catch with his dad in front of a Super-8 camera. Having pitched for the Detroit Tigers for 20 years, Billy, now 40, is in something of a slump when the team's owner (played by an unrecognizable Brian Cox) informs him that the Tigers have just been sold. Not only that, but the new owners intend to trade Billy to another team. Not only that, but Jane (Kelly Preston), Billy's girlfriend of five years, shows up to tell him that she's decided to move to London, where they don't know from baseball.

"For Love of the Game," adapted from the novel by Michael Shaara, takes place over the course of one game, in which Billy pitches against the New York Yankees, decides whether to quit or be traded and reflects on his relationship with Jane. In this meditative state, Billy almost unconsciously begins to pitch a perfect game, his personal definition of which will change radically by the ninth inning.

Director Sam Raimi does a good job of capturing the electric charge of a no-hitter, and he puts the camera and sound design to inventive use in re-creating the almost out-of-body, Zen-like experience of a major league pitcher caught in the vortex of The Zone. But the imaginative genius of Raimi, who did such a stylish job of bringing the thriller "A Simple Plan" to the screen is all but invisible during most of "For Love of the Game," which focuses more on its story's vanilla romance than on the far more fascinating dynamics of the most important game in a ballplayer's life.

If that romance begins to feel like a "City of Angels" re-tread, that might be because "For Love of the Game" was written by that movie's screenwriter, Dana Stevens, a woman who writes lines like, "I could hear that your voice was worried." This dialogue isn't helped by two actors who look terrific but can barely choke out a word that sounds remotely authentic or spontaneous.

Costner and Preston can't take the blame for everything. It's not clear, for example, whether Stevens or Raimi is responsible for the movie's more egregious contrivances, such as Jane's daughter (Jena Malone), who appears and disappears with suspicious convenience. Or such stock items as The Rain Scene, the Very Bad Accident and The Montage Featuring a Monopoly Game Played While Wearing Silly Hats.

More objectionable than all of these put together, though, is Costner himself. His image as the millennium's answer to Gary Cooper -- a sort of laconic jock-shaman-good ol' boy -- has calcified to the point where you wonder if it's become his identity rather than a role. There's something creepy, for example, about the fact that Costner's real-life parents play Billy's parents in this movie -- it feels as if he has morphed into all of those baseball-playing, apple-pie-eating, girl-next-door-kissing characters he plays (and plays, and plays).

Vanity is one thing, but Costner's act is beginning to feel like a particularly self-righteous -- and tiresome -- form of pathology. Someone should tell him that an actor's job is to disappear into his characters, not vice-versa.

'For Love of the Game'

Starring Kevin Costner, Kelly Preston

Directed by Sam Raimi

Released by Universal Pictures

Rated PG-13 (brief strong language and some sexuality)

Running time: 137 minutes

Sun score: *

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