The Perfect Game
Swing and a miss
The Perfect Game
Directed by William Dear
Cast: Clifton Collins Jr., Cheech Marin
Are inspirational sports dramas actually inspirational, or are they just a cheap and easy shortcut for lazy filmmakers to evoke an emotional response? Are they simply the Y chromosome equivalent of romantic dramas in which one of the two leads is dying of some incurable disease? (Love Story, I’m looking at you.)
Certainly, there’s no shortage of ISDs. We get at least six of them a year—most clustered around football, baseball or basketball, with a rare few dipping into soccer or other more “international” sports. The formula is all but etched in stone: Choose a ragtag, underdog team and follow them to their triumphant, come-from-behind victory at whatever national championship courtesy of whichever unconventional but inspiring coach they’ve stumbled across.
It’s easy to see why a producer or director would choose an inspirational sports drama. It’s essentially a paint-by-numbers kit for film. Follow the instructions and you’re all but guaranteed a teary-eyed response. Americans are well-conditioned to sports. We cheer for the winner and we heckle the loser. But is there really any point to having more films in this already overcrowded genre?
Take, for example, the new baseball pic The Perfect Game. It succeeds in the first task facing any inspirational sports movie: Finding an uplifting, real-life sports story so you can slap that “Based on a True Story” title card at the front of the film. This is no small task, given that just about every Cinderella story in the history of sports has already been co-opted and adapted.
The Perfect Game goes non-pro for its story seed, choosing a 1957 Little League team from Monterrey, Mexico, who became the first non-U.S. team to win the Little League Baseball World Series. Obviously, that was a big deal at the time. Since then, however, 30 out of the 49 championships have been claimed by non-American teams.
Gripping the formula tight, The Perfect Game starts by giving us a bitter, burned-out coach in the form of Cesar (Clifton Collins Jr.). This allows the story to have an obvious “character arc.” We know, based on past films, that the coach will be redeemed—going from grumpy drunk to homily-spouting champ-maker in the very sport that rejected him. Coach Cesar is a Mexican-American ex-baseballer who failed to get a proper toehold in the majors thanks to racial discrimination. Defeated and downtrodden, he heads to Monterrey, Mexico, where he gets a job working in a foundry. There, he stumbles across a gang of runty street kids looking for a way out of their crushing poverty. In a matter of weeks, he teaches them baseball, and they go on to become undefeated powerhouses. It would be unbelievable if it weren’t (mostly) true.
Obviously, people like come-from-behind stories. And as professional sports has proven time and again, it’s not the richest team who wins the World Series or the Super Bowl, but the scrappiest ... oh, no, wait. It normally is the richest team. The underdog usually loses. The odds-on favorite usually wins. That’s why bookmakers set the odds that way. Of course, there are statistically more losers on the planet than winners. Economically speaking, you’re better off appealing to them. And the best way to impart the feel-good message that underdogs can sometimes be winners too is to show a literal underdog sports team winning some big trophy.
No one has lost in a sports movie since Rocky and The Bad News Bears back in 1976. So it’s no spoiler to say that Cesar and his team win every game and get to the Little League World Series, where they achieve sports’ rarest and most boring miracle, the perfect game (in which, basically, nobody even makes it onto first base). Predictable as this film’s ending is, many audiences will respond well to it. But honestly, it’s cheating when your stand-up-and-cheer ending consists of people on screen actually standing up and cheering.
Only one of the adorably interchangeable ragamuffins on the team gets any backstory at all. And he’s saddled with the stereotypical Angry Dad, who disapproves of his son entirely—at least until he wins the championship, then it’s hugs and kisses and “I’m proud of you, son” all around. What the hell kind of message is that, anyway? Your dad will stop comparing you to your dead older brother and love you again if you just overcome all odds, pull yourself out of poverty, master a sport and win the big game. Lose, and it’s more beatings and neglect for you, kid.
The filmmakers throw in some token romance, a bunch of speeches about bigotry and a whole lot of shout-outs to God, courtesy of a wise and wacky parish priest (played by Cheech Marin, Lord help us). The result feels like an inexpensive, made-for-TV movie off some basic cable Catholic station. Don’t get me wrong: The Perfect Game is incredibly sincere. It’s well-meaning. But it’s mostly—and rather fittingly—like a great big box of Cracker Jack. That is: filled with corn and covered in syrup. The Perfect Game does for inspirational sports dramas what ... well, what every other inspirational sports drama has already done for the genre.