Sunday, April 15, 2012

Pickled: The Sandlot

“I thought you said 'The Great Bambi.'”

The Sandlot is about a kid who loves baseball before he knows a thing about it. Not how to throw. Not how to catch. Not even how to worship the game’s greatest player. One of the film’s earliest scenes and, much later, its major crisis point, are both based on the notion that skinny little Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) is the one person on the planet who has never heard of “The Great Bambino,” Babe Ruth. Scotty’s baseball ignorance gets him into trouble, but only temporarily, and when The Sandlot ends, with a scene that’s foreshadowed in the opening, Scotty is all grown up and working as the radio voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Presumably he knows all about Babe Ruth by that point, but apparently neither he nor the film’s writers have ever heard of Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame broadcaster who has been the voice of the Dodgers since 1950. Now 84, Scully hasn’t been the exclusive voice of the Dodgers in decades, so it isn’t entirely out of the question that Scotty could’ve gone on to call Dodgers games, but to a baseball fan Scotty’s adult occupation is all too perfect: the kid who grows up unaware of the greatest baseball player of all time goes on to unknowingly fill the shoes of the greatest baseball broadcaster of all time. Natch.

Suffice to say, Scotty Smalls is no Vin Scully, whose silky voice and perfect blend of breathless patter and lingering silences often make the Dodgers legend seem less like a game’s chronicler than its architect, as if he’s directing the action on a Hollywood set. Then again, who is? The elder Scotty (Arliss Howard), whom we glimpse only in the opening and closing scenes, calls just one play in the movie, so The Sandlot’s problem isn’t really that Scotty is a humdrum broadcaster but that he’s an uninspired narrator. This nostalgic movie is told through the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood, recounting one hot summer when the new kid in town found friendship and happiness on a scraggly field with a tree house in straightaway center and a vicious dog looming beyond the outfield fence. It gets the visual details right, from the early 1960s outfits to the compositions that emphasize the key elements of endless boyhood summers: dirt, grass, blue skies, more dirt and the occasional pretty girl. But what The Sandlot lacks is an accomplished storyteller’s narrative charisma or gravitas – the special ingredient of reflective classics like Stand By Me (Richard Dreyfuss), A River Runs Through It (Robert Redford) and TV’s The Wonder Years (Daniel Stern), or even a smaller gem like the director’s first feature Radio Flyer (Tom Hanks). In short, The Sandlot lacks a narrator with voice.

This is no small thing, because the narrator doesn’t just move the action along in The Sandlot, he hypes its extravagant action climax, a long sequence in which the boys conspire to retrieve an autographed baseball from a backyard protected by a destructive dog nicknamed “The Beast” without getting hurt. The narrator refers to this messy situation several times as “the biggest pickle any of us had ever seen,” which seems like a cute play on words but turns out to be something of a broken promise. A “pickle” in baseball vernacular is a rundown – a base runner caught between bases who is chased back and forth by the opposition until he reaches a base safely or is tagged out. But what happens at the end of The Sandlot is a runaround. Star athlete Benny Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), inspired by a dream conversation with Babe Ruth (Art LaFleur), decides that the best way to retrieve the ball is to “pickle The Beast.” It makes little sense when Benny says it (The Beast is the pursuer and there’s only one of him) and it makes even less sense when realized. Turns out, what Benny really means is that he’s going to jump over the fence, grab the ball and jump back over before The Beast can catch him. To call it a pickle is cute, but a better name for it, considering all the contraptions the boys come up with to try to get the ball in the first place, would be “the easy way.” Not that it turns out easy, of course, because The Beast leaps the fence and chases Benny all through town as if determined to live up to the narrator’s promise. Trouble is, once that happens it isn’t Scotty and the rest of the gang in a pickle, it’s just Benny, running for his life. Which is fitting, I guess, because it was Benny who was visited in his sleep by the Babe, and … wait a minute, whose story is this anyway?

Cowritten by director David M. Evans and Robert Gunter, The Sandlot is Scotty’s story except when it isn’t, and, similarly, it’s a baseball movie, except when it isn’t. If the action climax seems forcibly tied to baseball where it just doesn’t fit, one of the movie’s most delightful sequences has nothing to do with the game at all – an adventure at the community pool when the short, spunky, spectacled Squints (Chauncey Leopardi) goes off the deep end to get close to the curvaceous female lifeguard. When Squints turns the lifeguard’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation efforts into a forced kiss and “This Magic Moment” plays on the soundtrack, The Sandlot achieves a lovely mixture of boyhood mischievousness and adult sentimentality. Alas, too often The Sandlot seems to be chasing after its influences with the same slobbery determination of The Beast pursuing Benny. Let’s see, there’s a reflective male narrator, a late-50s/early-60s small-town setting, a pop music soundtrack, a group of pre-teen boys, a loudmouth kid with glasses, a fearsome dog behind a fence, a scene with copious vomiting and a verbal epilogue about the adult fates of the boys. As David Spade might have said on “The Hollywood Minute” had The Sandlot been released just a few years later, I liked it better the first time when it was called Stand By Me.

That The Sandlot inspired a direct-to-video sequel more than a decade later (which Evans directed, what with his extensive direct-to-video sequel experience on Beethoven’s 3rd and Beethoven’s 4th) says less about the power of this film than about the dependability of its formula. Kids are attracted to the youthful mayhem and, well, so are adults. When Scotty first joins the kids at the sandlot, he notes, “They never really stopped playing the game, it just went on forever – it was like an endless dream game.” And while that’s an apt example of the film’s clumsy narration, redundant twice over, it also points to the film’s appeal. The Sandlot draws us into that precious period in life when it seemed like the fun would never end. In one inspired moment, a shot of Squints running toward a baseball in the foreground as fireworks explode in the July 4 sky dissolves to an almost identical shot of Squints running toward a baseball in the foreground, this time under the bright afternoon sun, thus suggesting the boys' unending ritual of baseball, baseball and more baseball. The Sandlot is the unusual baseball movie that truly isn’t about winning and losing. It’s about playing the game.


Hokahey said...

I've seen bits and pieces of this movie: the dog chase; the pool scene, when my daughter is re-watching it. In the same way she likes The Goonies, and I don't understand why, she likes The Sandlot, and I don't understand why. (Actually, I know she loves movies about groups of kids and sports.)

Your baseball movie series shows your devotion to the Great American Pastime. Well done!

Jim King said...

I thought it was a bit strange that kids in the 60s would still care that much about Babe Ruth. You'd think they'd be more interested in big stars of that time.

I liked this movie even though it has its problems. I agree with you about the kid ending up as the voice of the Dodgers. He should have ended up just like 99% of all baseball fans - working some regular job and watching it on TV most of the time. Maybe they could have shown him calling the game, but then cut to him just imaging it while sitting on the can.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: I grew up on The Goonies (filmed in Oregon; Spielbergian adventure), and I respect that kids who grow up on The Sandlot probably feel the same warmth for that movie as I have for The Goonies. But, oh, how this movie could have used a narrator with presence!

Jim: Sorry for the delayed response. I think you're right: he should have ended up a fan. Also, I find it odd that he's managed to hang on to that long-billed hat all these years and wears it so proudly. Shouldn't he be fond of the hat that Benny gives him, that he wears during all their adventures?