The '70s marked the heyday of the proudly profane sports comedy, a largely defunct subgenre dedicated to the radical notion that rich, virile men who made their livings staring down 100 mph fastballs or getting pummeled by 300-lb. linebackers might relax at the end of a long day with something stronger than a white wine spritzer and use language unwelcome at libraries throughout our great land. Michael Ritchie emerged as one of the giants of this strange, much missed (by me at least) breed of sports movie, thanks to 1976's Semi-Tough and 1977's Bad News Bears, two sly comedies laced with satire, cussing, and all-around unsportsmanlike behavior.
Then in the '80s, sports comedies underwent creative castration. The sports movie lost its fangs along with much of contemporary American cinema as jock fare was pitched to younger and younger audiences. Freewheeling satire of Erhard Sensitivity Training and sexual shenanigans were out and bland uplift was in, especially if inspired by a true story© or supernatural in nature. Like a lot of American directors who peaked in the '70s, a sputtering Ritchie kept returning to the genres where he found his most substantial success, but failed to repeat earlier triumphs in later sporting endeavors like 1992's Diggstown, which has a reputation as a nifty little sleeper, and 1986's Wildcats, which does not.
Ritchie's criminally underrated and overlooked 1994 comedy The Scout takes less than a minute to establish the texture and rhythms of its lead character's sad existence. The film opens with a shot of the open highway, accompanied by a fiddle at once lonely and strangely upbeat before veteran scout Albert Brooks pulls up to a hotel that–like this baseball lifer, his car, and the man behind the camera–has clearly seen its better days. With dispiriting efficiency, Brooks whips out his hot pan and prepares a sad little meal of spaghetti from a box. Brooks' affably cantankerous old pro has clearly reconciled himself to an endless cycle of shitty meals, fleabag motels, and late night television. It's simply the price of pursuing a life in baseball at any cost.
Brooks is a scout by trade, a position that combines elements of psychiatry, con artistry, salesmanship, and coaching with a fair amount of carny hustling thrown in for good measure. When meeting with the Bible-thumping family of hot young recruit Michael Rappaport (a strange choice to play a super-Goy and an even stranger pick to play a neo-Nazi in Higher Learning from the same period), Brooks posits professional baseball as a trade only slightly more secular than the priesthood.
Why Mickey Mantle's sister was a nun, a heckuva nun, Brooks assures them. When the family stresses Rapaport's commitment to college, major-league baseball suddenly become the exclusive domain of world-class scholars. Oozing aw-shucks charm, championship bullshitter Brooks assures Rapaport's folks that Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth all traveled with tutors on the road, which is historically accurate if by "tutors" Brooks means "half-empty bottles of whiskey and hookers on call." But didn't Gehrig get a horrible disease, Rapaport's mom meekly inquires? Yes, but not from his tutor, Brooks improvises.
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When Rapaport implodes on the mound, however, Brooks is banished to the outer reaches of south-central Mexico, to watch games where sheep graze in center field, fans gnaw on what appears to be the roasted bottom half of a hooved creature, and an aggressive runner sliding into third base knocks over the third baseman, the umpire, and a food vendor hugging the foul line in quick succession. Ordered to deliver a daily update of his progress by sneering boss Lane Smith, Brooks dutifully reports "Yesterday, I saw a game played by five men, two women, a child, and a goat at third base" at which point Smith sneers "Really? Was the goat any good?"
The Scout exceeds any reasonable quota of chuckles, guffaws, and big-ass laffs during these wonderful early scenes of Albert Brooks looking for baseball in the Mexican world. The film has the misfortune to peak in its first act: audiences are invariably more indulgent and forgiving toward movies with great last acts than movies that roar out of the gate but limp to a close. I would happily watch an entire movie devoted to Brooks' character stumbling around Mexico for two hours, but that's unfortunately not the movie Ritchie and company made.
Brooks finds his ticket back to the majors and the United States in the hulking form of Brendan Fraser, an emotionally damaged super-athlete with the mind of a child and the body of a God. He can throw over a 100 mph and hit homer after homer, but possesses the emotional transparency and easily bruised ego of a ten-year-old.
Brooks helps win Fraser a $55 million contract with the Yankees on the grounds that he secure a note from a psychiatrist confirming his mental stability. (Bear in mind that The Scout came out in 1994, back when $55 million still represented a substantial amount of money.) But when Brooks takes Fraser to visit psychiatrist Dianne Weist, she warns that Fraser has repressed childhood memories of abuse and could turn violent and unpredictable if those memories are awoken.
There's an unmistakable tenderness at the core of Brooks and Fraser's father-son relationship, a poignant mutual symbiosis. But the further The Scout gets from the freewheeling goofiness of its Mexico section, the slipperier its footing becomes. The problem lies in trying to generate emotional honesty out of a premise that boasts roughly the verisimilitude of Battlefield Earth: namely that Fraser will pitch the first game of the World Series (should the Yankees make it), despite never having thrown so much as a single pitch for a Double A farm team. In what universe do people make their major league debut starting the first game in the World Series?
Fraser specializes in playing impishly child-like slabs of beefcake. Here he imbues his preternaturally talented super-athlete with disarming vulnerability and neediness, but as The Scout rushes towards a monumentally unsatisfying final act, the tricky drama of Fraser's emotional awakening morphs into sticky sentimentality that smothers the comedy.
Like far too many contemporary sports movies, The Scout centers on an archetypal "Big Game" rather than mirroring the laconic rhythms of baseball. Baseball is essentially the art movie of the sports world: games regularly last three hours or longer, they're filled with dead space where nothing appears to be happening, and it's rapidly losing fans attracted to faster-paced, more exciting, and visceral fare.
My imaginary cut of The Scout hits theaters in 1978, right after Bad News Bears but before Real Life. The first hour takes place largely in Mexico and the third act finds Brooks and Fraser taking a picturesque marathon car trip to Yankee stadium, taking in plenty of America along the way. The film ends on a freeze frame of Fraser getting ready to pitch his first inning for a Yankee farm team, a cinematic question mark open to infinite different interpretations.
Sadly, Ritchie was in a precarious professional position in 1994–he put out Cops and Robbersons the same year for chrissakes–and wasn't in a position to make a bold stand. Accordingly, The Scout boasts one of the most egregious cop-out endings in recent memory: after freaking out at the World Series, Fraser calms down and pitches the most incredible Perfect Game in the history of baseball, striking out twenty-seven batters on eighty one pitches.
Compared to The Scout's lazily fantastical happy ending, all those schlocky movies about angels in the outfield and baseball-playing primates look grindingly realistic by comparison. Giving The Scout such a grotesque caricature of a happy ending is like making a low-key character study of a troubled basketball player that ends with its hero scoring three hundred points in his first game while being quadrupled teamed in the Finals and topping it off by leaping majestically from half court to the hoop for a backboard-shattering slam dunk. The Scout's happy ending–a compromise designed to please no one, baseball fans especially–doesn't seem to belong in the same genre as the film's stellar first half hour, let alone in the same movie.
In light of the film's devastating anti-climax, it's not hard to see why The Scout is widely seen as a mediocre Brendan Fraser comedy instead of a seriously flawed but often wonderful Albert Brooks movie. For all its compromises and tonal weirdness, The Scout still radiates humor, heart, and vivacity. It occupies a singular place in Albert Brooks' career as the only film he ever co-wrote but didn't direct and represents an uneven but often funny and fascinating fusion of Brooks' cantankerous personal aesthetic and the unstinting demands of slick Hollywood formula filmmaking.
When I call The Scout a Secret Success, I'm not arguing that it's an unqualified success or a triumph. I'm not necessarily lowering my standards or grading on a curve with these entries, but I entered into this project with a spirit of generosity and am going out of my way to accentuate the positive. Unlike Fraser's character, The Scout doesn't live up to its early promise and it's utterly heartbreaking watching so much potential get sacrificed at the altar of sports-movie formula. Yet even in such compromised form, The Scout is a lovable, very funny little orphan of a movie that deserves to be reappraised and appreciated without the lingering stigma of critical and commercial failure hanging over it.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success