Monday, August 22, 2016


Bill Lee wasn’t so strange.

He liked drugs. He listened to rock music. Classical, too. He dabbled in meditation and yoga. At heart, though, he was a baseball player, like any other baseball player. Last I heard, he was living in Maine, teaching the fundamentals of the game to kids.

During his heyday he picked up a nickname – “Spaceman” – because jocks and sportswriters are a decidedly square lot, as sheltered and unhip as Sunday school teachers. A player who gets high, speaks his mind, and defies the front office, as Lee did periodically, must be somewhat shocking to those around him, something short of Charles Manson. I’m not an expert on Bill Lee, but he’s always appeared to be a decent chap. Sure, he was yoked to an anti-establishment stance that was as much a reflection of the times as a personality trait, but he could win 17 or 18 games throwing nothing but junk. Plus, he tried like hell to have integrity. There were other players in Lee’s day who spoke their minds and argued with management, but as we see in Brett Rapkin’s  Spaceman, Lee seemed to care more than the others. At his worst, he was like some college freshman who reads Siddhartha and feels determined to share its meaning with the world. At his best, he was Randall McMurphy in cleats.  

Throughout Spaceman, Lee comes up against various Nurse Ratcheds in the guise of coaches. All Lee has to do is quote Buckminster Fuller to send a Montreal Expos coach into a frothing rage. The powers that be don’t even like his style on the mound, what one coach derides as “a grab-bag of monkeyshit pitches.” The method here is pure 1970s misunderstood rebel-hero, sprinkled with touches of Slapshot, North Dallas Forty, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and even Bound For Glory. When Lee rhapsodizes late in the movie that he plans to roam the country, discovering baseball in its purest form (“Baseball, softball, wiffle ball, cricket! Pay me in money, pay me in lager, or don’t pay me!”) he sounds suspiciously like Tom Joad telling his ma goodbye before he hits the highway. 

Early on we’re told in big bright letters, Most of This Really Happened…which is fair enough. The best baseball stories are a mix of truth and folklore, but was Lee really so unconcerned about hygiene? “Your farts are an improvement on the B.O.,” says a friend at one point. Not surprisingly, his marriage crumbled at the same time as his career, so we get the obligatory scenes of Lee dealing with a divorce lawyer - he strips down to his briefs in the middle of the guy's office - and pleading with his wife over the phone. These bits feel added on, in case a few females stumble onto the movie by accident. Much more stirring is the footage that plays over the final credits, clips of the real Bill Lee, now a bearish man in his late 60s, still participating in semi-pro games. Watching Lee lumber around the bases is all the proof we need that his love of marijuana was more than matched by his love of competition. 

As Lee, Josh Duhamel spends half the movie in a bathrobe, growling like Nick Nolte. He seems all wrong at first. He's too redneck, which wasn't Lee's vibe at all. By the movie’s middle, though, Duhamel settles into a nice mix of humor and anger. Duhamel also served as one of the movie’s producers, which makes sense. An  actor would certainly nurse a project like this one, because it gives him a chance to “sink his teeth” into the role. Indeed, there are moments when Duhamel overdoes it, but he’s also quite real at times, quite believable as a fading athlete raging against the dying of the light. I especially loved a scene where Lee is pulled over by Canadian Mounties and has to charm his way across the border. The look on his face is priceless when he realizes they’re letting him back into Canada. It tells us more about Lee than any number of scenes where he snorts cocaine or preaches about freedom, or acts as a magnet for period clutter, everything from red suspenders to his collection of jaunty caps, to the green Volkswagen bus that has dangling from its rearview mirror a Native American dream catcher. It's an odd image for a movie where dreams can’t be caught, but have to dance like a knuckleball just to avoid being crushed.


No comments:

Post a Comment