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Spaceman (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"Southpaws are odd ones, though that's not always enough."
3 stars

Say this for writer/director Brett Rapkin - not a lot of folks have made a documentary feature and then been able to return to the subject for a narrative one. Off the top of my head, that puts him on a short list with Werner Herzog and a few others. Not at the top of the list or anywhere near it, since this year's "Spaceman", at least, is just an average sports bio, but there's a little something to be said for both practice and for doing movies about things that hold one's attention over a long period.

By the time the film picks up in early 1982, William Francis "Spaceman" Lee (Josh Duhamel) had already had quite the checkered career, picking fights with the front office in Boston until they traded him to the Montreal Expos and now proving himself too colorful for even that city, so when he walks out to protest the release of teammate and friend Rodney Scott (Sterling K. Brown), the team cuts ties with him. Fellow barfly Dick Dennis (W. Earl Brown) offers to be his agent, but no team wants the headaches that come with him, and he starts playing with a local senior-league team even as the rest of his life spirals out of control.

Ask Bill Lee (or just find yourself in the same general area as Bill Lee) and he'll tell you that he wasn't blacklisted from Major League Baseball for his bad behavior so much as for being one of the players' union representatives who worked with Marvin Miller to gain arbitration and free-agency rights, but that's a very different story about a very different thing. Rapkin wants to tell the story of how a passionate, talented man handles a fall, but what make's Lee's story tricky is that the fall comes primarily as a result of his own arrogance, and Rapkin likes Lee too much to really maintain that as an issue throughout the movie. His initial flameout is compelling in large part because the audience can see him bringing it upon himself, but once that happens, it seldom seems to be something inside Lee that either digs him in deeper or pulls him out - for much of the second half of the movie, stuff just happens off-screen. Narration tells us that Lee rents his basement to a drug dealer, for instance, but because we don't see it (and the film initially makes a joke of it), this doesn't seem like something Lee does or which reflects on his state of mind; it's background that he's somewhat disconnected from. There's a cut between the next to last scene and the last that feels good, but which also skips over Lee doing what needs to be done to bridge what had been set up as a large gap, and then the film jumps to his later life as a baseball vagabond without the audience really seeing him attack his issues. It's missing a lot of what would make the story feel complete, rather than a sketch with just one part filled out.

The film doesn't need to have such strong thrust, especially given that part of the fun is meant to be this laid-back hippie type discovering his natural environment outside of corporate professional sports. When the film settles into offbeat sports comedy, it has some great moments, whether they be about being a baseball fan in a country where that sport is a distant second to hockey or how Lee is in many ways the wacky stoner side character who has somehow found his way into a lead role. Maybe the stuff with the Longueuil Senators wouldn't have worked so well stretched to the entire length of a movie, but it leads to some pretty funny short bursts.

One thing that works surprisingly well is the casting of Josh Duhamel as Bill Lee. Duhamel has spent much of his career playing blandly handsome folks who seem dull when they're capable and empty when they aren't so bright, and it turns out that a scruffy, self-sabotaging guy who nevertheless has the talent and ego necessary to play big-league ball is just what the doctor ordered - he seems to relish playing weird, really following Lee down a rabbit hole rather than playing quirks off what's expected. And while there are times when the interplay between Duhamel and W. Earl Brown as the guy who is supposed to be one of Lee's closest confidants seems obligatory, it's too bad that the film doesn't have the time to give Ernie Hudson more to do as the working-class guy who was the star of the team before Lee arrived despite coming at it from the opposite direction - Hudson steals his scenes without much effort, and with a little realignment, the friendship between the guy for whom playing semi-pro ball is escaping his everyday life into a fantasy and theone who has dropped there from a great height could be the soul of the movie.

Fortunately, the glimmers of a better movie within shine through the one that has to do some lo-fi trickery to get by at points - in one scene when Lee is pitching, a logo-free jersey and a blurry but clearly reversed background are used to make right-handed Duhamel appear to be pitching southpaw; animation is used for flashbacks to Lee's time in the majors. Like its subject, "Spaceman" isn't quite so good that it can get away with its shortcomings, but it plays with enough love for the material and joy that baseball and independent film fans can respect it and cheer it on, even if it's not exactly big league.

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originally posted: 08/20/16 15:30:41
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