While the notion of a movie based on controversial baseball player “Spaceman” Bill Lee may sound like music to the ears of baseball fans, Brett Rapkin’s Spaceman is a considerably less enticing proposition to non-fans with no familiarity with Mr. Lee, a group to which this writer bashfully belongs. That in mind, it came as a relief to find that the movie isn’t really about baseball at all; rather, it’s a comical character study about a man so eccentric, peculiar, and athletically gifted that his life, in fact, does warrant filmic examination.
Rapkin’s movie depicts a short slice of Lee’s life following his release from the Montreal Expos in 1982, but we catch our first glimpse of him – all of him – a few hours prior to the fateful firing as he makes pancakes for himself wearing nothing but a flowery yellow apron (he’s played by the strapping Josh Duhamel, so the sight of the exposed derriere is anything but unsightly). It’s clear from the moment he sprinkles cannabis on his breakfast that he’s a far cry from the typical MLB super-athlete.
When Bill arrives at Expos practice he’s met with the worst news of his life, delivered by his sneering manager (Peter Mackenzie) who’s openly overjoyed to release his “insubordinate, over-the-hill ass.” Bill’s proven himself a reliable player despite being in his mid-thirties, finding consistent success on the mound as one of the best southpaw pitchers in the game. But his shenanigans both on and off the field, while endearing him to fans, have earned him a shoddy reputation amongst his peers. He’s a wide-eyed livewire, threatening violence one moment and spouting random sociopolitical philosophies the next, a volatile pattern of behavior that makes him a liability for any major league team.
Bill’s career is in bad shape, but his home life is in a similar state of disarray. He has three kids with his soon to be ex-wife, and instead of spending quality time with them during his visitation days, he makes interns of his “brood,” tasking them with writing letters to every team in the MLB in hopes of finding a new home for his left-handed talents (the kids clearly adore him, which makes all the envelope-licking all the more disconcerting), Try as they might, none of the teams bite -turns out Bill’s colorful reputation can’t even land him a spot on the worst team in the league, the Pittsburgh Pirates. “We have enough problems without adding you to the mix,” they respond.
Amid the deluge of rejection, Bill does receive one offer, from local senior-league team the Longueuil Senators. Since he’s got nothing better to do, he plays a few games with them and finds himself enjoying the small-time camaraderie. The Senators segments are the movie’s best; watching the middle-aged players talk Québéqois smack and chuckle in their ill-fitting, yellow uniforms is a treat, and the fact that the great Ernie Hudson is among their number is a sweet, sweet bonus.
The Senators’ onscreen dynamic is so good that one wishes the movie would’ve focused more on the team rather than Lee’s other exploits. We see him say crazy things and make crazy faces at anyone who tells him no, from baseball managers who won’t give him a shot, to his wife, who strips him of visitation hours with the kids in their divorce settlement (he strips down to his undies in symbolic protest). We watch him go on days-long benders, have spirited business chats with his new manager (W. Earl Brown, terrific), and chug beer in slow-motion in a smoky discoteque, but the escapades have no sense of narrative momentum or purpose because they’re so loosely strung together. The only thing tying them together are occasional animated interludes accompanied by Duhamel’s voiceover narration, which is good for a laugh for the most part (“I combined the sacrifice of Jesus with the patience of Buddha!”), but starts to grate around the halfway point.
Duhamel does surprisingly well as such an off-the-wall character considering his leading-man good looks. It’s always more difficult to garner laughter when you’re the most handsome guy in the room, but the Transformers star isn’t afraid to look foolish, which is key. He’s got charisma for days, but the movie around him is so tonally confused and unstructured that his performance ultimately gets lost in the mess. The best thing about Spaceman is that it prompted me to do extracurricular research on the fascinating Bill Lee; aside from that, it’s a moderately entertaining comedy at best.
Spaceman is a tonally confused, moderately entertaining glimpse into the life of one of baseball's most bizarre characters.