2018/03/27

Major League

Major League

Having finished editing a baseball story the other day, I got the urge to revisit the 1989 sports comedy Major League. It had been at least a decade since I'd last seen the movie, and this most recent viewing gave me some new insights.

If you're unfamiliar with Major League, it's a light comedy firmly in the "ragtag team of misfits learn to put aside their differences to win the big game' mold. This movie managed to rise above the pack thanks largely to snappy dialogue and endearing performances by Tom Berenger, Bob Uecker, Wesley Snipes, and Charlie Sheen.

That's what makes this film notable from a creative standpoint. The screenwriters and actors took a rather shopworn concept and elevated the material to the status of a lesser 80s classic. Major League essentially did for sports flicks what Ghostbusters did for horror movies--albeit with rather less cultural penetration and commercial dominance.

ML was still a minor hit though, earning back roughly five times its budget at the box office. And chances are most of you at least recognize Charlie Sheen's trademark character Ricky Vaughn--especially if you subscribe to dissident politics and frequent Gab.

Brief plot synopsis: The gold-digging trophy wife of the Cleveland Indians' recently deceased owner plots to activate an escape clause that will let her move the team to Miami if attendance drops below 800,000 per game. To that end, she fills up the roster with the worst players she can find. The result is a club full of dysfunctional circus freaks. Two complications threaten to foil the owner's plan: 1) the players catch on and resolve to win out of revenge, and 2) an amazingly talented nobody just happens to crash Indians training camp.

I'm old enough to remember the original marketing campaign for Major League. The trailers and TV spots portrayed the movie as cheeky and edgy. Irreverence definitely abounds, but that was the late 80s, when putting Charlie Sheen in your movie with a Christmas tree-inspired haircut and glasses from Hot Topic could still pass for edgy.

Upon review, what most stands out in Major League is what doesn't stand out. The movie was filmed in the summer of 1988--almost exactly thirty years ago. A more iconic 80s genre-blending comedy, Back to the Future, springs to mind. Marty McFly traveled back in time from a 1985 of video games, silk screen t shirts, and Burger King to a 1955 of The Honeymooners, poodle skirts, and diners.

Movies make good time capsules, and Major League shows us that not only had pop culture remained essentially unchanged between 1985 and 1988; it hasn't changed much between 1988 and 2018. The first sign that Major League wasn't filmed in the present day comes roughly half an hour into the movie when somebody is shown talking on a huge old-style cell phone. Otherwise, the first act could have taken place anytime from the mid-1980s till now.

But pop culture is not the entirety of culture, and the intervening changes to the latter are apparent in this film. Major League is yet another comedy you could never make today thanks to rampant political correctness. Pedro Cerrano and his Jobu shrine would never be allowed by Hollywood's cultural kommissars.

Even then, the production hedged their bets by taking pains to mock the film's sole openly Christian character. Still, the heathen is shown giving up his superstition in the end, so the movie's underlying ethos is closer to garden variety secularism than the current anti-Christian, anti-white male hysteria. But you can glimpse it on the horizon in retrospect.

As I mentioned in my review of Galaxy's Edge: Legionnaire, the mark of a superior comedy is that the story would still work if you took out the jokes. Major League fulfills that criterion. The characterization is especially competent considering the size of the ensemble cast they were working with. Yet all of the main characters are introduced and fleshed out just enough for the story to work in a relatively short amount of time.

My one gripe with the story has to do with the movie's conflict--specifically, the antagonist's motivation. The players stand to lose their jobs if her plan succeeds, which are sufficient stakes to believably motivate the team. The owner's motive is that she simply dislikes Cleveland and would rather move to Florida. Thus, she suffers from a case of Wile E. Coyote plot. Instead of orchestrating a lengthy and costly Rube Goldberg plan, why doesn't she just sell the team and move to Florida? For that matter, why doesn't she keep the team and move to Florida without them?

That's just a minor quibble. All of the current tent pole superhero movies have far less coherent villain plots. Overall, Major League is a slightly flawed and too often overlooked gem from a time when comedians didn't take themselves too seriously to tell jokes. If you've got some free time this week, I encourage you to dig it out and watch it again.


I also encourage you to check out Nethereal, the first volume of my award-winning and now complete Soul Cycle action-adventure series.

Nethereal - Brian Niemeier

11 comments:

  1. As I mentioned in my review of Galaxy's Edge: Legionnaire, the mark of a superior comedy is that the story would still work if you took out the jokes.

    That's a good test. I've used it on other things and called it the "impact scale" (i.e. if you alter 1 thing in a story, how much more of the story needs to be changed?). Never thought of using in that way but it totally fits. I'm stealing it, Brian.

    Also it helps to prove how good GalaxyQuest is because it passes the test easily.


    My one gripe with the story has to do with the movie's conflict--specifically, the antagonist's motivation. The players stand to lose their jobs if her plan succeeds, which are sufficient stakes to believably motivate the team. The owner's motive is that she simply dislikes Cleveland and would rather move to Florida.

    Well here's something I read on TVTropes that may alter your feelings:

    "The first movie's original ending painted Rachel Phelps in quite a different light. In a deleted scene, she confides to Lou Brown that she never had any intention of moving the team, and all her actions were a ploy to motivate them to success. The scene was cut because test audiences liked the character better as a villain."

    And of course, when you get to test audience stage, the movie's already mostly filmed so it does make some sense that a late change to the character would cause some inconsistencies you wouldn't have had had the idea been there from the start.

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    1. Also it helps to prove how good GalaxyQuest is because it passes the test easily.

      I was just going to bring that up. Another beautiful example is The Princess Bride

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    2. "That's a good test. I've used it on other things and called it the "impact scale"

      Good name. Punchy. Doesn't overstate itself. Strong work.

      "I'm stealing it, Brian."

      No need. It's an old screenwriters' axiom. Pretty sure it's public domain by now.

      Re: Major League's deleted ending, that makes way more sense. I need to track that scene down.

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    3. I did indeed enjoy it, which is why I was actively looking for a copy of the movie.

      Found in the bargain DVD bin at Wal-Mart.

      Showed it to the wife and kids (none of them had ever seen it).

      They all loved it. Which shows their good taste.

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    4. Feel free to use "impact scale" wherever you want, Brian. I talked about it in this video.

      I spent awhile hunting for the blu-ray of GQ, it's harder than you think.

      And you're right I would enjoy your review. I left a comment on it saying as much. ;)

      I still like SF Debris' point in his review that if you count GQ, the even-good/odds-suck rule for trek is maintained as it came out in-between "Insurrecton" and "Nemesis." XD

      Which then makes Trek '09 even (it was ok), "Into Darkness" odd (boy did it suck) and "Beyond" even (the best of the reboots).

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    5. I spent awhile hunting for the blu-ray of GQ, it's harder than you think.

      https://www.amazon.com/Galaxy-Quest-Blu-ray-Tim-Allen/dp/B07216MGMD/

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  2. We used to watch Major League a lot on video. I remember critics disliking it because they regarded it as a Bull Durham rip-off because of stuff like both movies having a voodoo guy (even though the joke in both movies is based on athletes, especially baseball players, being notoriously superstitious).

    I've always thought it was very well-filmed for a mainstream comedy, and Berenger made for a very likable underdog hero. The sequel centered on Sheen's character and it isn't anywhere near as good, as I recall.

    If they made it now, the movie would get nasty essays about how it's implying that women can't run sports franchises and that the owner is only good for being objectified, probably by many of the same people who insist that Walter Peck is the real hero in Ghostbusters.

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    1. See also: people who say Belloc is the real hero in Raiders of the Lost Arc.

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    2. Having recently watched both, I will say that ML1 has a better overall structure and story to it (making it better) but ML2 does have the better sight gags and moments ("you have no... MARBLES!").

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  3. "Walter Peck is the real hero in Ghostbusters."
    "Belloc is the real hero in Raiders of the Lost Arc."

    I would consider the holding of either view proof of alien origin, except I've actually met some of them.

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