“A League of Their Own” proves baseball is best played in skirts, and Eddie Murphy is a dog begging for a leg to hump in “Boomerang.”
A League of Their Own
Nutshell: With the majority of men off to fight in WWII, the All-American Girls Baseball League was established, requiring women of ability and allure to help provide a sporting kick to a country in need of distraction. For Dottie (Geena Davis) and younger sister Kit (Lori Petty), baseball is a natural fit, joining the Rockford Peaches (teammates include Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell), managed by alcoholic grump Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks). As the season passes, rivalry makes teamwork impossible for Kit and Dottie, while the realities of war set in for the older sibling, forcing her to choose between her domestic duties and the liberation of the baseball diamond.
1992: I first caught “A League of Their Own” at a nationwide sneak preview a week before its release. It’s a word of mouth tactic the studios don’t employ much anymore (early peeks are treated more as press screenings these days), which is a shame, since they create a great deal of excitement for film fans on the prowl for an early look. While “League” was a known production with marketable stars (and a Fourth of July weekend release), the whole “women in baseball” concept was largely met with shrugs and confusion. The public didn’t know what to make of this sports comedy co-starring Madonna (her “Sex” book would debut four months later), encouraging the studio to unveil it quickly and allow ticket buyers an opportunity to sample and spread the good word.
Maybe it was the twilight atmosphere, the summer baseball feeling, or the mounds of popcorn and soda in my lap, but I fell head over heels for “League,” absolutely caught up in its wartime Americana mood and feminine spirit. I was utterly charmed by the whole endeavor, pulled completely into the melodramatics and the stadium shenanigans, genuinely feeling that Penny Marshall, while miles away from a raw observer of the human condition, was blossoming into a terrific mainstream filmmaker. After “Big” and “Awakenings,” “League” was another home run for the former Laverne De Fazio, showing outstanding control of her cast and a decent eye for idealized period details, soaking the feature in WWII pep. There were also bittersweet qualities to the picture that penetrated expected shields of viewer cynicism, making the screening an emotional evening.
It didn’t take a genius to grasp that “A League of Their Own” was going to be a massive hit after the sneak preview. People walked out of that theater brimming with love.
On a special note, before the “A League of Their Own,” Sony attached a teaser trailer for “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” introducing the world to Francis Ford Coppola’s highly stylized take on an age-old story. The clip was eerie and gorgeously assembled, revealing itself to be a gothic humdinger not afraid to slop a little blood around the frame, bravely revealing Gary Oldman as the title character, grannied up to fully disorient all of us newcomers. Perhaps it wasn’t the brightest idea to promote a hard R-rated Thanksgiving horror release before an apple-cheeked PG family film, but the teaser made an immense impression. Summer wasn’t even half over, and here I was all psyched for winter.
2012: “A League of Their Own” has a wonderful sentimental spirit that hasn’t diluted a bit over the last 20 years. It’s a lovely baseball movie with a real core of personality and comedy keeping it alert, celebrating the AAGPBL in an impressive manner, maintaining its intent to be an earnest tribute to the women who played the game. It’s a terrific picture.
Marshall isn’t shy about tugging heartstrings, with the bookend segments alone, following an elderly Dottie as she meets up with the old gang for a Hall of Fame celebration, doing whatever they can to extract tears from the viewer. It’s undeniably grabby, yet all the emotion feels earned in this expansive picture, with the screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell creating specific personalities out of the players, using nicknames and colorful broad strokes to secure an appreciation of the team dynamic, while casting fills in needed charisma. Marshall brings the audience in tight, living the ups and downs of the team, often to comic effect, but the sappy/bittersweet stuff is what lingers long after -- the sibling rivalry between Dottie and Kit, the pain Jimmy feels when he watches Dottie return to her domestic routine, and the joy of the women as they break away from their stale lives and roughhouse on the diamond. Beyond the jokes and the rippling American flags is a rich sense of experience that’s often overlooked when people consider the movie. Although this isn’t stating much, I think “A League of Their Own” represents Marshall’s finest hour as a filmmaker, capturing audience-pleasing moments with assurance, while also paying careful attention to the vulnerabilities of the characters.
The performances are uniformly superb, even Madonna, who adds genuine zest to the film as outfielder “All the Way” Mae, a role she was born to play. Davis is statuesque and confident as Dottie, matched well with Petty, a difficult screen presence Marshall manages to soften without losing the actress’s innate spunk. It seems cruel to reward a male in a female story, but Hanks truly runs away with the picture as Jimmy, stripping all sense of vanity to portray a gruff, ugly man warming up to a managerial position he initially finds beneath him. Obviously, Hanks has all the best and most famous lines, but his scruffy manner supplies a shark bite Marshall needs to balance out the distress. Hanks kills in the movie, creating something memorable out of a nothing supporting role.
It’s also worth mentioning Jon Lovitz, here in a small role as sarcastic scout Ernie Capadino. Lovitz picked up a little heat in 1992 with this wicked turn, and his work here remains tart and hilarious. I’d write that “League” is his best movie, but that would be stating the obvious.
“A League of Their Own” isn’t edgy fare, playing to a broad audience with an inspiring tale of feminine might in a dismissive era. It lunges for the tear ducts, but it’s a manipulation that I didn’t mind then and I don’t mind now. It’s a perfect example of a big, wet studio offering that actually finds wonderfully human notes to play, providing the goosebumps and the ache.
It seems there’s actually plenty of crying in baseball.
Nutshell: A top ad executive and an insatiable womanizer, Marcus (Eddie Murphy) is knocked flat by the arrival of Jacqueline (Robin Givens), his new boss and instant object of desire. Used to manipulating women, Marcus finds Jacqueline a tough nut to crack, with the femme fatale turning the tables on the cad, destroying the buppie’s confidence. Turing to his friends (Martin Lawrence and David Alan Grier) for comfort, Marcus soon stumbles into love with subordinate Angela (Halle Berry), pushing him to choose between the fire in the loins or the music of his recently discovered heart.
1992: After the sting of defeat emerging from the failure of 1989’s “Harlem Nights” and a crushing disappointment of the bloated “Another 48 Hrs,” Eddie Murphy was facing the real possibility of a career slump. Looking to shake up his routine, the star sought out “Boomerang,” a romantic comedy of sorts that allowed Murphy to play softer for the first time in his career, building on his sensitive leading man work in “Coming to America.”
“Boomerang” also brought Murphy to the Hudlin Brothers, Reginald and Warrington, the filmmaking duo fresh from their independent success with the classic comedy, “House Party.” It was an intriguing pairing, with Paramount gambling on audience interest in the new, polished Murphy, promoting the effort as a romantic alternative to the noise of the summer multiplex selections. In a weird way, “Boomerang” was counterprogramming for the studio, launching the sedate picture on a holiday weekend, betting on sexy time fireworks over the literal kind.
I was an admirer of “Boomerang” in 1992, perhaps because I was rooting for Murphy to return to his glory years, away from obscene riches eroding his sense of timing, leaving him uncharacteristically comfortable. The Brichives note that the Hudlins brought a “good-natured” quality to the comedy, with my only genuine complaint concerning the film’s excessive length.
It’s odd to reflect on “Boomerang” since it does contain a joke I recall vividly to this day. Relaxing with Angela on a couch, watching “Star Trek” (Murphy is allegedly a rabid fan of the series), Marcus pipes up with this throwaway line:
I can’t believe that’s a gag I’ve clung to for two decades, but whenever I see Spock on TV or up on the big screen, I always think to myself, "Spock Jenkins."
2012: The beauty of “Boomerang” is how it keeps a tight leash on Eddie Murphy. The Hudlins don’t permit their star to steamroll over the entire picture, instead portioning out his improvisations and mischief meticulously. Character comes first to the filmmakers, which makes all the difference in the world. After all, Murphy is attempting a profoundly sexual role here, with his comic baggage doing more harm than good. How sexual you ask? Well, we do observe two orgasms from the funny man.
Two more than I ever needed to see, if you ask me.
Murphy is strong here, exuding a crisp confidence to articulate Marcus’s business world and bedroom supremacy. Clad in the freshest clothing 1992 allowed, the star is frighteningly chic and focused, inhabiting the philanderer’s prowl with a newly trim physique and genuine directorial faith, permitting the Hudlins to play around with the charged atmosphere of manipulations and humiliations. While the role doesn’t ask Murphy to explode with range, his control is exceptional, nailing sensuality and stupidity with just the right amount of sparkle and exposure. It’s a great performance, especially after his soul-flattening work in the “48 Hrs” sequel, where his thespian spirit was clearly on vacation. With “Boomerang,” Murphy was back, black, and badder than ever.
Supporting Murphy in “Boomerang” is a massive cast of famous faces, with the Hudlins bringing together a gifted, varied team of African-American stars to do the heavy lifting in the comedy department while Murphy works on his straight man act. Some of the best moments are devoted to the women in Marcus’s life, including a randy turn from Eartha Kitt as a more…mature conquest for the player, forced into sex to protect his job. Grace Jones brings her customary insanity to the role of Strange, a wild fashionista creating numerous headaches for the advertising firm. Berry is also fresh and inviting as the lone lady able to steal the bad boy’s heart, showing disarming likability here, underlining a serious downgrade in appeal over the last 20 years. Berry is goofy and believably wounded when the time comes, creating a plausible complication for Marcus. There’s also a confusing naturalness to Chris Rock’s cameo as an ambitious mailroom employee, highlighting a young, quick comedian who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s worst actors. One hilarious dude, but scripted lines are like handcuffs to the man.
The cast is playful and attentive, but nothing compares to the hurricane of John Witherspoon, who manages to steal the movie in his brief supporting turn as Gerard’s (Grier) uncouth father, who teaches Marcus the finger-licking secret of seduction. It was my introduction to the madness of John Witherspoon. I treasure the moment of impact.
My heart no longer beats, it goes bang, bang, bang.
“Boomerang” has lost little of its appeal, with sizable laughs emerging from all sides of the picture, not just Murphy. It’s refreshing to see such a universal effort from talented folk, and the Hudlins nail such a relaxed, agreeable atmosphere to the feature. That is, until the last act, which hurries through some major conflicts to lend the material an emotional impact it doesn’t need. It’s a speedy summation of break-ups and make-ups, ending “Boomerang” on a false note of hope for a lead character who doesn’t deserve the redemption. The film ends with a whimper, but the cop-out conclusion doesn’t dilute the playfulness the Hudlins are always interested in providing. I only wish they had the opportunity to work with Murphy again.
As the saying goes, “Once you go Brian Robbins, you always go awful.”
Coming next week…
Back when Brad Pitt was Hollywood’s new toy, he tried to prevent Gabriel Byrne from having sex with a cartoon.
And Jean-Claude Van Damme faces off against Dolph Lundgren. Better fire up the English subtitles.