This weekend’s movie recommendation was, for me, all the proof I’d need to know that Tom Hanks can be adorable even when he’s a jerk. In Penny Marshall’s A League of their Own, Hanks is the inebriate coach tasked with pulling together a team of misfits to compete in the country’s very first women’s baseball league in the 1940s.
Among the tired and formulaic film genres out there, sports movies usually take the cake as the most wearisome of all. When it’s a team-based game, especially, the formula is so familiar you can probably do the whole thing blindfolded, replacing only the adversity-du-jour for taste. Here, Geena Davis plays Dottie Hinson, whose preternatural gift for baseball attracts the attention of a talent scout who’s looking to recruit her for a new team (a delightfully slimy Jon Lovitz). She reluctantly joins only at the desperate urging of her younger sister Kit Keller (played by Lori Petty), who’s eager to leave small-town Midwestern America behind for something bigger.
But the world of baseball into which Dottie and Kit intrude makes the sisters’ welcome as harmonious as is to be expected for the 1940s. What could be a ripe moment for commentary that offers something a little more substantial than the usual sports comedy gets left behind in favor of rehearsing the same inoffensive and lightly sentimentalized mold as the previous installment from Marshall and Hanks, the director-star combo responsible for Big from four years earlier.
Upon arriving, the sisters meet their team-mates at tryouts. Stock characters abound, from Rosie O’Donnell’s loudmouth Doris to Madonna’s salacious Mae. Even the presence of the odd-one-out, Megan Cavanaugh’s frumpy Marla, represents the exception that proves the rule that a team of women athletes has to be caricatured, charming (and preferably attractive), and uniformly sympathetic before they’ll be considered remotely viable.
Hanks has no reservations at all about hamming up and enjoying a caricature. He plays Jimmy Dugan, a washed-out former big-leaguer who happily cashes his paycheck in exchange for showing up to games and posing as the team’s manager. The sinecure expectedly transforms into a source of redemption, as the team-mates teach him to find fulfillment again in the game rather than the bottle. Nonetheless, along the way Hanks has plenty of opportunity to show off his extraordinary gift for physical comedy – just keep an eye out for one scene in particular, where he has to learn the demands of restrained and constructive criticism.
We needn’t worry about the usual tumult in this sports yarn, though: the opposing teams are all similarly situated hopefuls, catapulting themselves through the glass ceiling; it’s not long before the team-mates click with one another; and the periodic reminders by David Strathairn’s executive Ira Lowenstein that the league depends on funding barely rise above blips on the radar. In fact, the team’s sympathy is pretty much impregnable. Neither the obstacles placed before women entering a male space nor the woes accompanying notifications about husbands lost in the war overseas consume more than a few passing moments in the team’s ascent to victory.
Unfortunately, as fun as the film is, its resolute refusal throughout to grapple with the rich themes available to it up until the final scene make the conclusion to A League of their Own a rather jarringly mawkish detour. The women rendez-vous at the Baseball Hall of Fame to commemorate the significance of the country’s first all-women’s baseball team, and to commiserate about the losses suffered in the intervening years. But in a film that so studiously maintained a light-hearted tone for almost two hours, the final eight minutes are a jarring descent into something else entirely—and it’s not even all that clear what.
Despite its weaknesses toward the end, A League of their Own hits a solid double when you need it most.* Enjoy!
*No, I really oughtn’t be trusted with hackneyed sports metaphors. I strike out every time.