To watch the movie Bull Durham today is to realize that never has so much municipal mythology been built upon so flimsy a foundation.
The city of Durham is, for all purposes, absent from the movie—except in name. There is no there there (as Gertrude Stein said about her childhood home of Oakland, Calif.). How can a city that is mentioned frequently in the dialogue, and whose streets form the backdrop for the action, seem to be so conspicuously missing from the film?
Then again, maybe that's not such a bad thing. After a fresh look at Bull Durham, you might have the same reaction to it as I did after watching it a couple of weeks ago for the first time since its premiere in 1988: Why was everyone so enchanted with a film so awkwardly cast and pretentiously told?
Yes, I know. Bull Durham is, according to some polls and lists, the best movie about baseball ever made. That only means (1) it ain't a very fast track, and (2) the other horses are lame.
Let's start with Tim Robbins, who is laughably unconvincing as a minor-league phenom headed for pitching glory in "The Show." His windup for the very first pitch of the movie (not to mention every one that follows) has all the grace of a lead-footed white guy trying to break it down in a disco. Furthermore, the pitch itself has less velocity than you'd see at a middle school girls' softball game. But in the very next frame, a comely young baseball groupie holding a radar gun behind home plate to measure his pitching speed announces, "Ninety-five miles per hour."
It is a measure of the movie's chronic implausibility that the idea of a baseball groupie having her own radar gun is less absurd than the sight of Tim Robbins pretending to be an athlete.
Then there's the Susan Sarandon character, whose very name—Annie Savoy—itself is a leering joke in a film overpopulated with stupid names. (Nuke? Crash? Oh, c'mon.) As former major league pitcher Jim Bouton revealed in his 1970 book Ball Four, women with appetites for sex with ballplayers have long been known as "Baseball Annies"—but there's little suggestion that any of them have ever come in a package quite like Annie Savoy's. She drives a vintage Volvo, lives in a grand Victorian home, listens to Édith Piaf and dresses to the nines for ball games (all of that somehow paid for by her part-time, junior college teaching gig). If that doesn't push the envelope of believability far enough, when she selects a team member (snicker) with whom to frolic for the season, boinking isn't always on the agenda: In one of the first encounters between Annie and Tim Robbins' Nuke LaLoosh, she ties him up in her bed—he's ready for some kink—but instead spends the evening reading out loud from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
Uh-huh. And this is the movie hailed as the most realistic depiction of life in the minor leagues.
I won't even dwell on Kevin Costner's wooden acting, or the fact that the script calls for both Sarandon and Costner to deliver tedious, talky ruminations on what they believe in. (He believes in high fiber, good scotch and soft-core porn, among others; she favors "the church of baseball" and the therapeutic value of guilt-free fornication. Apparently, that's the stuff that'll get you nominated for a screenwriting Oscar—as Bull Durham was.)
None of this would matter, though, if the film had succeeded in portraying Durham in all its interesting, flawed, diverse, chaotic glory. The fact that a movie this bad is hailed as great is only one stumper to be pondered here. The other is why so much civic pride has been piled on a film that shortchanges the real place it sought to portray.
Aside from the scenes at the old Durham Athletic Park and a few shots of the downtown skyline, nothing in the movie gives you any sense of Durham as a specific, unique place. For all that it imparts about that history-rich city, it might as well have been filmed on a studio backlot. Many other movies are notable for the way they gave you a sense of place. L.A. Story, for instance, reveled in the weirdness and self-absorption of Los Angeles and its residents. Woody Allen had a gift for making Manhattan a character in, as much as a setting for, his films. But the Durham in Bull Durham is a blandly generic city with nothing to distinguish it from any other mid-sized municipality in the South.
Let me cite just one way Bull Durham could have introduced the viewer to the place: At the time the film was made, cigarettes were still being manufactured in Durham, and the pungent smell often wafted through downtown. It would have been easy to establish Durham as a city unto itself through a single line of dialogue from Costner's character as he arrives fresh in town: "What's that smell?" But the movie doesn't even give Durham that small shred of individuality.
This is why I've been puzzled for two decades by Durham's embrace of a movie that treats it as just another Nowheresville. The city portrayed in Bull Durham is just as colorless and uninteresting as Durham residents frequently declare Raleigh to be. Yet they adored the film when it came out, and 20 years later have launched themselves into a new round of celebration.
Welcome to the white-bread world, y'all. It's amusing to see you embrace your inner blandness.