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While Tyrus Raymond Cobb may or may not have been the greatest baseball player of all time, there's no question that he was the meanest player in the history of the game. Known for sharpening his cleats -- the better to impale opponents when sliding into base -- Cobb was a pugilist who was hated by his own teammates as well as opposing players, many of whom he sent to the hospital. (Once, he even went into the stands to pummel a heckler, despite the fact that the heckler was crippled.)
In private life, Ty Cobb wasn't much nicer -- in fact, he was worse. With an affinity for alcohol, women and gambling, he was a gun-toting psychotic and a blatant racist. He beat his wife and, quite possibly, killed a man.
Given its subject matter, writer/director Ron Shelton's new film Cobb walks on ice so thin that razor-sharp cleats don't help much. A biographical film about a sports legend who was a total bastard? At best, biopics are hard to pull off; at worst, they're vanity driven vehicles that fail miserably. And films about truly wretched individuals (i.e. Bad Lieutenant) usually have a hard time attracting an audience.
Still, Cobb had the potential to be a bold film about one of America's antiheroes. But potential wasn't enough to keep this fly ball out of foul territory.
Bull Durham and White Men Can't Jump both showed that Ron Shelton is more than capable of turning out a good sports film; Cobb, though, is less about baseball than it is about an insufferable ass. Based on sportswriter Al Stump's Ty Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball, the film recounts the experiences of Stump (Robert Wuhl) during his time as the biographer of Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones). Cobb, 72-years-old and in bad health, refuses to die before his legend is told; but there's a conflict of interest in that Cobb wants a book of melodramatic lies about "a great man and a prince," whereas Stump is determined to record the truth, no matter how ugly or damaging.
Cobb has a major problem from the start. While Wuhl is convincing as a sportswriter, he's given too much screen time. Given the source material, this might have been unavoidable, but it still proves distracting. Stump is nowhere near as interesting as the man he's chronicling, and when he takes over the screen, all you can do is hope for Cobb to return.
When Cobb is the centerpiece -- especially when his life is told through flashbacks -- the movie is engrossing. Filmed in a dulled hue, these sequences show events in a dreamy past; in the ones that take place on the diamond, Shelton's experience shines through. Unfortunately, these flashbacks aren't used enough; the bulk of Cobb's past is related through his dialogues with Stump, which prove to be tiresome and frustrating, given that Cobb goes with a lie or a half-truth as often as not. Even more frustrating, after promising to give a truly warts-on picture of a truly nasty man, the movie loses its courage. Halfway through the film, Cobb, with no explanation, becomes a tear-shedding softy at certain times. While this may have been intended to make the audience more sympathetic to an ugly man, it makes the film lose focus. Worse, it was entirely unnecessary -- Jones plays Cobb with such charm that you can't help but love him and loathe him simultaneously. Shelton should have had more faith in his star, who delivers a dead-on performance.
Ultimately, Cobb doesn't satisfy. The film has its moments, but little entertainment value. As a biography, it's confusing and incomplete; as a character study, it's too timid. And when dealing with a monster like Cobb, you shouldn't pull your punches. Ty Cobb was known as "the Georgia Peach," but the movie Cobb isa peach that tastes a hell of a lot like chicken.
Directed by Ron Shelton. With Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl and Lolita Davidovich.
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