Film Review: Spaceman

Biographical drama about eccentric pitcher Bill Lee's final days in the Major League and his attempt to find a place for himself afterward tries hard but never gets below the surface of the man.
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Major League Baseball player Bill Lee was a character. First off, he was a left-handed pitcher—a "southpaw"—and that alone makes you a character in MLB. But Lee, who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1969 to 1978 and for the Montreal Expos from 1979 to 1982, was more of a character than most. How much so? The great Warren Zevon, himself quite a character, wrote the song "Bill Lee" about him for the classic 1980 album Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School. As chronicled in the 1984 memoir The Wrong Stuff by Lee and Dick Lally, and in Brett Rapkin's 2006 documentary Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, Lee was—and remains—an iconoclast willing to do drugs openly, espouse creative political views and say anything, even if that included denigrating team owners and managers, umpires and anyone else who didn't accede to his worldview.

In the biographical drama Spaceman—writer-director Rapkin's first fictional feature after several documentaries—Lee remains a character, but a cartoon character. That's literally so, in fact, in a couple of animated sequences. Despite an earnest performance by Josh Duhamel—an executive producer along with Bull Durham writer-director Ron Shelton—Spaceman never goes below the surface to who Lee really is, despite copious interior monologues presumably taken from Lee's own book. Why is Lee so contentious and self-sabotaging? What happened to his marriage? What happened to his money? Why is baseball so important to him that he'll even play amateur-league games immediately upon leaving the majors? The film gives us no answers, and we're left with a standard-issue tragic clown.

To its credit, Spaceman avoid many of the usual biopic shortfalls by concentrating on Lee's final days with the Expos and his immediate attempts to get back into baseball. Yet while limiting the scope normally expands opportunities for examining character through telling details, here it seems mainly an opportunity for him to drive his avocado-colored VW bus, or for tone-deaf scenes like one implying Lee and a fat postal worker regularly wrestle on the ground every day as part of their routine and then it's "See ya tomorrow, buddy!" We eventually reach a point where an exhausted, down-and-out Lee is hearing the voices of all the people who have told him baseball is "just a business." Subtle.

Other issues include filling in the character's backstory in the most hackneyed way possible, with sportscaster commentary over a parade of newspapers and magazines. Geez, why didn't Rapkin just make them spin toward the camera while he was at it? As to the voiceover that opens the film: First, I have to ask why so very many indie movies open with a voiceover. What's wrong with using the visual qualities of cinema to, y'know, tell a story visually as much as possible? Even Quentin Tarantino doesn't throw words at you when images will do. And second, all that the voiceover here is doing is telling us how much the character loves baseball. Really? You had to tell us that? You couldn't show it?

I do respect leading-man Duhamel for supporting and working so often in independent film, when he could easily live well just on the Transformers franchise and TV series. And despite how it sounds, I respect Rapkin for going outside his comfort zone and completing a fiction feature that's not only a period piece but one with the additional challenge of shooting sports. I know he genuinely wanted to get under the skin and tell us what made Bill Lee tick. Yet we're left with more questions than ever.

Some trivia for those interested: The amateur-league Longueuil Senators for whom Lee plays here is a fictional team, though that area of Montreal does have the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Senators.

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