Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Mr. Baseball: A Review (Review #1804)



Welcome to Rick's Texan Reviews Annual Opening Day Film review, where I look at a baseball-related film to coincide with the Minor League Baseball Opening Day. Today's film tackles the wacky culture clash that unites American and Japanese baseball.

Shohei Ohtani is still early in his Major League Baseball career, but he is already being tapped as one of the greatest players of our time if not all time. He comes in the shadow of another Japanese baseball figure, one who is so illustrious and legendary that one only need say "Ichiro" and baseball fans know whom you speak of. While Japan has still not dominated the baseball world to the extent that the United States has, they certainly are a force to be reckoned with. 

It is not only the U.S. who has been importing Japanese players, however. More than one Yankee has set sail for the Land of the Rising Sun to see his career rise. Mr. Baseball takes its fish-out-of-water story and does very little with it.

Arrogant Yankee superstar Jack Elliot (Tom Selleck) is having a career slump. Once a World Series champion all-star, Elliot now finds himself fading away to younger rising talents. The Yankees opt to trade him, but not to Cleveland as he fears. Instead, he is sent to the Nagoya Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball.

Elliot is highly displeased by this turn of events and is openly hostile to everything and everyone in the Dragons organization. His translator Yoji (Toshi Shioga) does his best to give more acceptable translations to Elliot's horrors, but he too grows frustrated by his client's intransigence on matters. No one can help Elliot: not Yoji, not Max "Hammer" Dubois (Dennis Haysbert), the only other American on the team, and not Uchiyama (Ken Takakura), the Dragons' gruff manager who is himself a NPB legend. Elliot will listen to no one, even after everyone tells him that he has a hole in his swing. 

Elliot continues to meet personal indignities, though things look up with the beautiful Hiroko (Aya Takanashi), the Dragons' marketing director. Though Elliot is displeased at having no say in being marketed for Japanese television ads, he eventually finds that there will be, to use her term,  "funny/monkey" business with Hiroko. There are more twists and turns as Elliot finally accepts things as they are, some romantic, some baseball related. Will Elliot be able to overcome Uchiyama's myriad objections regarding both his baseball playing and Hiroko? Will he be able to make a comeback to the United States?

This may be the strangest criticism against Mr. Baseball, but Tom Selleck seems too nice for the role. It is not that he is a bad actor overall. It is that he is not believable as Jack Elliot in the film. Selleck may be right for the part physically. However, he never showed that he could be this arrogant jerk that made Elliot's transformation believable. 

Take his opening statements to the press upon arriving in Japan. Gary Ross, Kevin Wade and Monte Merrick's screenplay (from a story by Theo Pelletier and John Junkerman) have dialogue that could make Elliot be more clueless than hostile. When asked why he is playing in Japan, Elliot replies, "I had a yen for playing here," an obvious pun in English. As directed by Fred Schepisi, his reply was too weak to be angry, too dumb to be accidentally silly. Mr. Baseball aims to make Elliot's comment be arrogant and dismissive, but Selleck delivers it not in an angry tone but more vaguely clueless, vaguely disinterested one. When asked what he thought of Japan, Elliot replies, "The airport's nice, I guess. And there's lots of little people walking and talking very fast".

This could have been funny if Elliot were nervous or dimwitted. However, the film clearly aims to have Elliot be angry and resentful. As delivered by Selleck, presumably under Schepisi's direction, it was surprisingly soft. These were not bitter comments, but they were not unaware comments either.

In retrospect, Mr. Baseball could have done better by making Elliot more clueless than hostile. It might have made the film funnier if Elliot were more prone to say idiotic things accidentally than say meanspirited things deliberately. This is especially true given that, again, Selleck came across as too nice to be hard. Granted, Selleck tried, but he never displayed more than a glowering dislike versus downright rage at his plight.

Mr. Baseball also has some unsurprising clichés, such as the Hiroko/Elliot romance. Oddly, the twist involving Hiroko and Uchiyama is not surprising, though it is forced and illogical given how that connection never once came up until the plot required it to. Mr. Baseball could have been funnier if it had opted for certain changes. Along with the idea to make Jack Elliot more good-natured idiot than resentful player, more comedy could have come with a subplot involving Elliot and his put-upon translator Yoji.

You couldn't even throw in one "Yoji Berra" quip? 

There are other curious elements that were either unexplored or unexplained. Given Jack Elliot's ego, one would think he would be thrilled to be shilling Japanese products. A running gag could have been made of Yoji's translation troubles. When Elliot, for example, says that it is not over until the fat lady sings, Yoji tells the other players, "When the game is over, a fat lady will sing to us". Yoji's struggles to make sense of Elliot's statements could have made things amusing. Sadly, they opted not to try.

How exactly Jack Elliot of all the American players became "Mr. Baseball" (or Besuboru) is unclear, especially given that Max Dubois is already there. Oddly, only once do we see Elliot be with other expats. Again, introducing elements that never come up again seems a lost opportunity.

Haysbert is wasted in the film. It might have been better if Dubois and not Elliot had been the main character. Takakura and Takanashi did as well as they could as the gruff but shrewd manager and the marketing director who has a close connection to said manager.

I'll let you guess what that connection could be.

Mr. Baseball does have one strong positive. It gives us an insight into certain elements of Japanese baseball that are unfamiliar in the West. For example, Elliot is hit by a pitch, enraging him. However, he is told almost immediately that the pitcher has tipped his cap, indicating that it was unintentional. Despite being told this by his teammates during the game, Elliot still rushes the mound, accidentally clocking poor Yoji in the melee. Details such as these are why Mr. Baseball is a de facto training video for foreign players entering the diamond of the rising sun.

That is good, but not enough to make Mr. Baseball itself good. Mr. Baseball is good only in showing us the peculiarities of Japanese baseball. It might be worth revisiting in a remake. That would allow the film to decide which route to take with Jack Elliot: reformed jerk or clueless Yankee. As it stands, it does not go either way, much to the film's detriment. 

Mr. Baseball may be big in Japan, but it won't be going Stateside. 


2023 Opening Day Film: Angels in the Outfield (1951)

2022 Opening Day Film: Bull Durham

2021 Opening Day Film: Alibi Ike

2020 Opening Day Film: Mr. 3000

2019 Opening Day Film: Ladies' Day

2018 Opening Day Film: Fear Strikes Out

2017 Opening Day Film: Eight Men Out 

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