Retroactive Review: The Phenom

The Phenom suffers from a lackluster story and a head-scratching ending.

Noah Buschel’s The Phenom is a brisk, 90-minute character study wrapped up in baseball, celebrity, the pressures of fame, and sports psychology. The movie, which is headlined by stars Ethan Hawke and Paul Giamatti, has a decidedly indie feel to it and is definitely more in the mold of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s indie baseball drama Sugar than a blockbuster like Moneyball or a bawdy comedy like Bull Durham. While not as successful with its themes as the indie darling Sugar, The Phenom still has affecting, arresting moments and overall is worth a watch.

The film stars Johnny Simmons (some fans might recognize him from comedies like Jennifer’s Body and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as Hopper Gibson Jr., a talented young pitcher who suddenly is struggling to throw strikes. Hopper is demoted to the minors during a playoff race and then sent to a sports psychologist by his parent club. The bulk of the movie is spent peering at Hopper’s life as he converses with his “mental coach” (Giamatti) and flashes back to scenes with his father (Hawke).

Despite its relatively short length, this isn’t a fast-paced movie by any means. It’s actually rather plodding, as we get plenty of talky scenes between Hopper and his sports psychologist and many more without much action. It’s very much a character study, though well-made and strongly acted. If you went into this movie expecting an action-packed sports fest, you’ll probably wind up a little bored and confused. If you’re not put off by low-action character-based dramas, you might find it worthwhile.

The movie has issues. The story is pretty thin, and there isn’t really any action to speak of. There are only a few baseball-centric scenes and no scenes within a major league setting. Though I didn’t really find the lack of action a major deterrent, it did make the movie feel like a bit of a drag.

The other more glaring issue, in my opinion, was the ending: In the penultimate scene of the movie, Hopper confronts Mobley (played by Giamatti) about concealing the fact that a player he treated—Howard Glass—committed suicide. Mobley, once a “phenom” in the field of sports psychology himself, spiraled into depression and alcoholism. The two then have a discussion that leads Hopper to a revelation. He doesn’t enjoy baseball and really hasn’t enjoyed it since he was a child thanks in part to his overbearing father. Giamatti’s Mobley promises Hopper he can get that childish feeling of joy back, that it isn’t lost to him completely.

This seems like a significant breakthrough, and then the movie just ends. Well, that’s not exactly true. Hopper promptly takes a nap on the psychologist’s couch, and then the movie ends, with an emotional visit between Hopper and his father in prison before Hopper’s “big game.”

I usually don’t say this, but I felt like the movie needed a little more length to feel truly complete. The ending is also a little confusing, as it only suggests Hopper has gotten his life back on track, rather than showing it. He appears to be back with the major league team (albeit in a bullpen role, to his jailbird father’s mild dismay), and he’s recently reconnected with an ex-girlfriend. It’s unclear how much time has passed since Hopper’s revelatory session with Dr. Mobley and his visit with his father. The conversation between the two is indeed revealing, as Hopper Sr. truly seems impressed with his son for the first time, and it isn’t Jr.’s exploits on the baseball diamond that bring the old man to tears.

As Hawke elaborates in a Blu-ray featurette, Hoppers Sr. and Jr. have a tragic, almost Freudian relationship—Hopper Sr. pushes Hopper Jr. to an abusive extent because he wants him to have success. But he’s also terrified of Hopper Jr. succeeding and thereby surpassing his own accomplishments, and so he feels he has to drag his son down. The final scene between father and son illustrates that dynamic rather well but still feels like too abrupt an ending.

Some of the comments I saw online about the movie referred to it as “Good Will Hunting, with baseball.” While that’s somewhat accurate on the surface, Good Will Hunting is more successful due to the deeper, tighter story and stellar acting from Matt Damon and Robin Williams. That’s not meant to be a knock on the stars of The Phenom, who play their roles well; those performances from Damon and Williams were just that good. The late Williams, of course, took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar Award for his turn as the psychiatrist, and Damon received an acting nomination as well.

The only other real complaint I had about the movie was about Simmons’ pitching. The actor stated in the commentary that he was taught to pitch by an actual baseball coach in just six months, eventually being able to throw around 75 mph. He did all his own pitching in the movie and, as Giamatti pointed out, Simmons was able to throw precision strikes and repeat his delivery like a professional pitcher. I’m fully aware this is a nitpick, but it’s a very awkward looking delivery, and I found it a little distracting during the few pitching scenes the movie did feature.

Another smaller nitpick is the presence of a fleet of reporters waiting for Hopper in the players’ parking lot after his disastrous game. I’ve been around parking lots after games, and I’m reasonably certain a gaggle of reporters and cameramen wouldn’t be permitted to camp out and wait for a player, especially not one of Hopper’s status. That scene drew me out of the experience of the movie a little bit.

On a slightly more positive note, The Phenom has some truly lovely cinematography and strong performances from the three lead actors, particularly Hawke as Hopper Sr. The movie also manages to avoid the clichés sports films tend to stumble into. Hopper isn’t shown riding in at the last moment to lead his team to playoff glory. He doesn’t win back his ex-girlfriend, Dorothy, whom he had callously disregarded earlier in the film. In fact, when a confused Hopper tries to convince Dorothy to take him back, she stands up for herself, reminds him of his hurtful behavior, and refuses to reconcile, citing college as a more pressing priority than dating Hopper.

Dorothy and her family are interesting characters, too. They are presented as intellectuals and a closely-knit unit, a counter to Hopper’s own broken family. In a dinner scene early on in the film, Dorothy’s parents try to engage Hopper in a conversation about socialism, corruption within the NCAA, and why the abolishment of baseball’s amateur draft is necessary. Hopper seems naïve to anything around him that isn’t related to his own career aspirations, though, which eventually leads to the breakup between Dorothy and him.

Overall, the film is watchable and the cast is strong. It also presents some thoughtful commentary on the pressures of fame, celebrity, and expectations. It’s not quite up to par with Boden and Fleck’s Sugar, which I found to have more emotional depth and just enough action to balance out the quiet, contemplative character moments, but it’s still a decent effort and a pretty good movie.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Some of The Phenom’s dramatic moments between Hopper and his father are also reminiscent of the late, lamented TV show Pitch. Ginny Baker, a talented pitcher in her own right, was pushed to succeed by her overbearing, former minor league pitcher father and at one point expresses that she no longer knows if she wants to pitch anymore. The more poignant character moments of Pitch floated to the forefront of my memory more than a couple of times while watching The Phenom.

There are also some interesting film techniques employed to depict Hopper’s pinpoint focus on baseball. During one of the few scenes to depict actual game play, the scene is filmed as if through a pinhole, with only the catcher visible from Hopper’s narrow point of view. It brought to mind the “clear the mechanism” scenes from Kevin Costner’s For Love of the Game, but perhaps not as schmaltzy. At any rate, it was an effective technique to show Hopper’s mindset.

The movie also got me thinking about former major leaguer Rick Ankiel. The similarities between Ankiel and the fictional Hopper are impossible to ignore. Like Hopper, Ankiel attended Port St. Lucie High School. Also like Hopper, Ankiel once uncorked five wild pitches in one inning (of a playoff game, no less) and dealt with an abusive father who also was sent to jail on drug charges, like Hopper Sr.

It’s quite clear that The Phenom is, in part, inspired by Ankiel’s story, though counter to some online reviews, the movie came out before Ankiel’s similarly titled memoir The Phenomenon. Ankiel’s story also ended differently from Hopper’s, obviously, as he was never able to return to pitching. After giving up on his pitching aspirations in 2004, Ankiel made a comeback as an outfielder, playing for a handful of teams until 2013. In his best offensive season, 2008, Ankiel slugged 25 home runs and put up 1.6 fWAR (2.0 bWAR). Some of the online commenters mentioned the connection between Ankiel and Hopper and cited it as a drawback to the film, but I didn’t find that knowing Ankiel’s life story affected my enjoyment of the movie either way. I was able to enjoy the film on its own merits.

The movie also spurred me to think about the immense pressure athletes must be under to perform. It was a breath of fresh air to get a glimpse behind the “curtain,” so to speak, and get to know a character like Hopper. As fans, we often come to expect athletes to perform with robot-like precision. Personal, non-sports-related problems sometimes are dismissed because “they make millions of dollars.”

Sometimes we even demand athletes turn off the human part of themselves to perform. I still can remember Tigers fans criticizing Max Scherzer for being unable to put aside his grief when he lost a start a handful of days after his brother passed away. That Scherzer had rushed back to make his turn in the rotation was remarkable, but the cruelty shown by a (thankfully very small) segment of the fanbase stood out that day.

As it was then, taking in Hopper’s personal struggle and watching him deal with his demons was a reminder that the human beings who perform on the baseball diamond for our entertainment are, well, human beings.

You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.
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Man, I love this series. Thanks for doing these.

(I happen to have seen this movie, and my memory of it is pretty much in line with what you say here.)