Not that it’s officially a trend or anything, but have you noticed the recent clump of new movies about disadvantaged nonwhite people whose athletic abilities bring them advantages, particularly the sort of fame that destroys souls? About which, these films give off a weary knowingness (not the same as wisdom), and more than a little hostility to the guilty-pleasure cornball nostalgia we’ve soaked up from sports movies before.
James Toback’s documentary Tyson reminds us, for instance, that when we speak so fondly of underdogs, we are speaking of animals. The movie is unlike any other about boxing not least because its central figure is unlike any other boxer, and complicatedly provocative not least because the fighter and the filmmaker are friends. That’s obviously how Toback got Tyson talking–and sounding sometimes rather eerily (and perhaps logically) similar to De Niro’s mentally deteriorating Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. “Toback’s candor risks being shocking,” observes Armond White in the New York Press, “especially in an era when the media creates lockstep conformity and sheeplike timidity about human nature.” Here, as an alternative, we have an assembly of privileged moments alone with a beast, who turns out to be a man.
Baseball has a movie like that too, in which Tommy Lee Jones gives an outstanding performance as Ty Cobb, but people seem to prefer not to recall it. Cobb did come to mind recently, though, while I was shuddering to imagine how that racist thug might have made a player like the protagonist in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar feel less than welcome in his sport.
The emerging consensus on Sugar is that it’s unlike any other about baseball, and that’s why it’s good. “Best baseball movie ever,” in fact, says the headline of an appreciation by Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir. This rueful, taciturn tale–of an open-faced Dominican pitcher (Algenis Pérez Soto) harvested for the U.S. minor leagues and culture-shocked out of his expected destiny–certainly delivers something other than the same old binary thrill-of-victory-or-agony-of-defeat dramatic payoff. What’s more, the presumably incorruptible American national pastime seems a lot less romantic when viewed as “a peculiar quasi-colonial enterprise,” as O’Hehir puts it. In one scene, our man finds himself choking on the mound, and a teammate tells him, “It’s the same game we played back home.” But he doesn’t buy it, and neither do we.
It’s not hard to hear a harmony between Sugar’s language-barriered quietness and the blustery, shit-talk-intensive Rudo Y Cursi, in which writer-director Carlos Cuarón presents Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal as quarrelsome half-brothers catapulted from humble banana-plantation origins into Mexican soccer stardom. Naturally, they play for opposing teams, and the stardom goes to their heads–which were hot and big to begin with.
Regarding the indictment of colonialist attitudes, it doesn’t matter that soccer doesn’t matter here (consider our scarcity of good movies about it); Rudo Y Cursi’s real pet subject is the fact that its protagonists’ big ideas of celebrity lifestyles seem so full of American contaminants. As the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman sums it up, “Tone-deaf Cursi dreams of being a pop star; jealous family man Rudo is a compulsive gambler. Together, they make the archetypal doomed movie palooka, bewitched by bimbos and beholden to gangsters.” Never mind the pals-in-real-life publicity buzz around the movie’s jocky stars, who’ve obviously taken a page from the Damon-Affleck playbook.
Message? Here’s one: There is the game, and then there is the sport, and then there is the industry, and then there is the end.