Thursday, April 16, 2009

Minor Leaguer

Standard-issue sports movie found wanting

Posted on Thu, Apr 16, 2009 at 4:00 AM

**
Sugar
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: R
Cast: Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jaime Tirelli
Director: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
WorkNameSort: Sugar
Our Rating: 2.00

Miguel Santos, a laid-back, competitive and potentially great Dominican baseball pitcher, seems to like his sport well enough. Played by Algenis Perez Soto, a first-time actor who doesn't command the screen so much as lounge inside of it, Santos (nicknamed 'Sugarâ?� by his friends, for a variety of reasons, depending on whom you ask) is recruited by an American minor league team along with some of his hometown friends, sends money home to mother and keeps his nose clean for the most part. He's taken in by an elderly couple and their attractive, abstinent-for-Jesus granddaughter, who seem to be on the league's payroll in exchange for keeping players out of trouble. He struggles with nerves, overcomes, and eventually takes the town by storm.

In these passages, the film remains impartial, a fly on the field watching the internal mechanics of the sports world with head cocked curiously. Sugar and its co-directors, married couple Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck ' who also helmed the excellent Half Nelson ' seem to offer a new, elegant take on the sports-movie formula. But halfway through, Sugar, the player, walks away. Crippled by insecurity from a slump, he hops on a bus and seeks out menial labor. The film declines to explain this decision and loses itself as a result.

We follow Sugar to New York, where he (and the film's momentum) gradually fades into the bustle of an urban jungle. He's witnessed the fleeting nature of sports stardom and seeks a structured, dependable line of work.

But the film seems to view his move inversely, as if it were noble and beautifully unstable while the life in baseball he left behind was stagnant and safe. If that's true, why bother going through the motions of a by-the-numbers baseball movie to begin with? The approach is flighty at best and a cinematic bait-and-switch at worst.

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