2020/09/09

Major League 1989

Major League

In the spirit of what's turned into a series of 80s movie reviews, I decided to revisit the 1989 sports comedy Major League.

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 middling 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 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.

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 for the season. 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. The time span between then and now brings more iconic 80s genre-blending comedy, Back to the Future, 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 2020. 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 Death Cult 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 action-adventure series.

Nethereal - Brian Niemeier

14 comments:

  1. "[W]hy 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?"

    This point doesn't bother me. If you're status-conscious, there are few things more elite than owning a major league sports franchise. But that status is specifically tied to a city, more so than, say, Paris Hilton would be tied to whatever city Hilton Hotels has as their corporate headquarters.

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    1. Good point. Owning the Miami Indians confers higher status than owning the Cleveland Indians.

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  2. "[W]hy 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?"

    A little background on this - apparently the original ending involved a twist that she actually loves the town, but the team was broke and these were the best players she could find, all potentially good but with serious flaws. She put on the nasty persona as further motivation for them. They ended up scrapping this when test audiences loved to hate her character though.

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    1. They made the right call. Having the villain pull a third act heel turn like that creates more problems than it solves.

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    2. Agree 100%. I also appreciate that the change was made simply to make the movie more _fun_ for the audience. It's almost like there was still some respect there for the people that actually would pay money to see it.

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    3. But that was long ago, and in another country.

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  3. "I also encourage you to check out Nethereal, the first volume of my award-winning action-adventure series"

    Was just sitting down to start chapter 22. Stop distracting me with nostalgia! :)

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  4. Your film reviews are fun to read. You should do more of them. The 70's-80's are what I consider to be when film reached it's peak. Although, I will allow the first half of the 90's to be considered something special as well. Late 90's till today it's all trash with CGI used not used to enhance plot but to dazzle the pop cult followers.

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  5. I happened to rewatch this a couple of months ago, too. I remember critics bashing it because they felt it was derivative of Bull Durham (a movie I've never warmed up to), although the reasoning was always a bit silly to me ("This movie has a voodoo guy and this movie has a voodoo guy!" As if baseball players aren't notorious for their superstitions...). I think a big part of what makes it work is that despite its typical irreverence, it's really quite earnest - you come to genuinely like the various characters and how they come together, and when they win it's played entirely straight, making the viewers want to cheer for real. I don't know much about Cleveland, but it also has a great sense of place and gets across how it's a town that could use some happy news.

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    1. One more thing that occurred me just after saving: Unlike modern pop culture, it depicts people of a wide variety of backgrounds becoming united around a common cause, around something that they can all bond over, instead of everyone being segregated and pit against each other by politics, race, sexual orientation, etc. Contrast with modern rhetoric in which everyone's differences are over-emphasized and then wondering "why are we all so divided?"

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    2. The mark of a good parody is if you can take the jokes out, and the story still works.

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    3. "Bull Durham (a movie I've never warmed up to)"

      You are not the only one. It's like The English Patient of sports movies if it was riffed by Seinfeld. Maybe someone can explain why everyone went gaga for BD because it's lost on me.

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