NEW YORK — Many still think of Kevin Costner as the action hero of adventures like "Waterworld" and westerns such as "Wyatt Earp," but lately the handsome star has been positioning himself as king of the male weepies. "Message in a Bottle" pulled out most of the sentimental stops, and "For Love of the Game" pulls out the rest. Moviegoers headed for this emotion-filled sports saga should stuff at least a dozen handkerchiefs into their baseball mitts.
Costner plays Billy Chapel, a 40-year-old pitcher with a passel of problems. His team is being sold, his throwing arm isn't what it used to be, and his girlfriend is pulling out of their relationship. The movie alternates between the ballfield, where Billy finds himself in the most amazing game of his life, and flashbacks to his love affair, which now appears to be in its last inning.
"For Love of the Game" is designed for baby-boom audiences, allowing them to shed empathetic tears over an aging sports star while enjoying the youthful virility of a movie star still in his prime. Like a contest between unequal teams, though, the story is wildly uneven. You needn't be a sports fan to get caught up in the ballpark scenes, which build a remarkable degree of suspense and sympathy. And you needn't be a hardhearted skeptic to find the romantic scenes badly overdone, from Kelly Preston's too-cute performance to the heavy-handed dialogue and syrupy music.
It's surprising to find so much schmaltz in a picture by Sam Raimi, who directed the "Evil Dead" thrillers as well as "A Simple Plan," one of last year's more subtle dramas. But the excesses of "For Love of the Game" probably won't stop Costner admirers, baseball fans, and romance buffs from storming the box office. It's a second-string film likely to become a first-string hit.
*Rated PG-13; contains vulgar language and adult material.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society