The Phenom is a baseball film with almost no baseball in it. The film’s young protagonist, Hopper Gibson Jr. (Johnny Simmons), takes the mound maybe three times. We never see if his team wins or loses. The Phenom isn’t about the game itself, but more of the journey that sees a young wunderkind go from big-league dreamer to holding the rosin bag in the majors. It’s a bold move making a baseball film with little baseball in it; unfortunately, The Phenom traffics in entrenched cliches and empty storytelling that makes it about as exciting as a 0-0 tie headed into the twelfth.
Correction: Hopper Gibson Jr. was a phenom when he was recruited by the bigs out of high school. Hopper has a fastball that would make Goose Gossage jealous, but his control issues and uneven play have him squandering for time in the minors. He’s paired with the organization’s wizened mental health professional (Paul Giamatti, who, apparently, is just going to play the “corporate sage” character from now on) who helps him work through his issues. Well, one issue: Hopper’s father. Hopper Gibson Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is a career criminal and all-around asshole who thinks greatness comes through pain, suffering and agony. Erstwhile, Giamatti’s Dr. Mobley thinks Hopper is possessed with god-given talent he must look inside of himself to excavate. But by the end, the film doesn’t seem to side with one philosophy or the other. Think Whiplash, if Whiplash never had the guts to actually decide whether or not J.K. Simmons’ firebrand style of “teaching” actually was an incubator for genius. What’s left is a film with as much confidence as Charlie Brown playing in Super Bowl Sunday, unsure of its own themes and ultimately never having much to say.
I’m a sucker for baseball movies, even the bad ones, so as long it can show a bit of competency I’m usually an easy target. But The Phenom may be my tipping point. In a sub-genre already rife with cliches (rags-to-riches, daddy issues, overcoming adversity, etc.), The Phenom wallows in all the trappings of sports films of yesterday. There isn’t a moment in the film (aside from an interesting cold open that promises a film which is never delivered) that feels fresh or relevant. It isn’t enough that all of the film’s themes are rote and stale, but the film quite literally has characters look into the camera and express the film’s central themes with as much subtlety and finesse as Roger Clemens after a fresh jolt of that anabolic sweetness. “You think because you can throw a baseball you’re special” Hopper’s girlfriend says, looking into the camera only to follow that bit of odious dialogue with a disdainful rant about how everyone is “worshipping these false American idols”. Every choice made by writer-director Noah Buschel—including the decision to split the film into a non-linear timeline, jumping back and forth between high-school Hopper and the current MLB flame-out Hopper—feels forced and unoriginal, instead of telling a baseball story, The Phenom is a poor approximation of every baseball story before it.
Despite everything, The Phenom is watchable and occasionally compelling, a direct product of the central performances, specifically Johnny Simmons and Ethan Hawke. Hawke has proved himself a capable actor for well over two decades and The Phenom proves why he’s dependable. Even when handed a ridiculous, ill-conceived caricature (Hopper Sr. is supposed to be a hardened badass who has a GIANT Felix the Cat tattoo on his chest; not cool, not cool at all), Hawke manages to find the humanity and create a structured character out of a bunch of hackneyed affectations. For his part, Johnny Simmons (known to many as Young Neil in Edgar Wright’s marvelous, indomitable, effervescent and wondrous Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) does his best to negate the banality of the film’s script with a performance flush with nuance. But it isn’t enough to save the film from itself.
I was going to make an analogy comparing The Phenom to infamous Red Sox first basemen Bill Buckner, who famously let a simple ground ball roll through his legs, thus gift-wrapping the New York Mets a victory in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (The Mets would go on to win Game 7 and the Series, making Buckner the biggest goat in all of sports). But to compare the two would be a false equivalency. Buckner was a great ball player who made an error at the absolute worst moment of his career. The Phenom wishes it was as good as Bill Buckner. Buckner may have booted an easy grounder, but The Phenom never even suited up for the game.
(Also, its high time we finally give Buckner his peace).
Craig is a writer living in north Florida with his wife and ornery dog. He writes about film and TV. He creates and publishes comic books under the label Gentleman Baby Comics. He's currently wishing his bio sounded more engaging.