Knuckleball (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Knuckleball (2012)

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A man serious about his knucklesAndrew INDIFFERENCE BannerA die-hard baseball fan I am not.  Our new podcast co-host Jeff tried to convert me to the ways of baseball analysis by giving me a book showing the evolution of statistics from the earliest punch cards to modern computer techniques.  This appealed to my love of numbers and statistics, but didn't quite make me a fan.  So I was faced with a dilemma of interest when one of the two main personalities that form the basis of Knuckleball was lamenting about the overabundance of statistics in play these days.

The only thing I find really interesting about the sport was gently laid to the side and the rest of the film continued along its pleasant way.  I'm not upset at his dismissal of stats, but in the absence of any real drama in the film it would have been nice to know what these rare knuckleball types really think.  It's also not that the film is short on niceness, in fact it's probably one of the most polite and well-mannered films I've seen, but nice does not translate well into personality.

Much like the titular pitch, there is very little friction and the film tends to meander a bit.  Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg seem to only really know one thing that they want their film to do well and that is explain the knuckleball from the positions of the people who throw it and the other folks who have to deal with the darn thing.  Significantly less interesting are the personal lives of the two main pitchers, R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield, and how the gentle narrative tries to tie them into their use of the knuckleball.

As advertised: plenty of knuckleballs will be thrown.

As advertised: plenty of knuckleballs will be thrown.

If it seems a bit disingenuous for me to complain about a film being "too nice" then you wouldn't be far off.  But the other side of that criticism is that for long stretches of Knuckleball I was just bored.  Dickey and Wakefield are nice, but I can barely tell if they like what they do or if it's just something that they happened to find themselves doing waking up in the morning one day.  As much talk as there is of them getting up in the morning to throw the ball around as kids none of that translates as passion and little of it seems to have made it's way to their respective families.

When the film cuts away from the domestic and early career scenery and just focuses on the pitch it is a lot more interesting.  As little as I know about baseball, I was still hypnotized by the sight of the knuckleball in near-perfect flight.  It's easy to understand why so many batters, and catchers, had trouble with the pitch seeing those stitches coming toward the target in a nearly motionless straight line.  When the film tries to explain the confounding effect it finds its human center far better than any of the family life scenes because of how everyone struggles to detail just how weird the effect is.

There's little to the arc of the film outside that.  Really there's just enough material in the movie for an interesting 30-minute Youtube video or a pleasant bumper between short games on ESPN.  Even the potentially sad elements, like the gathering of the slowly disappearing knuckleballers, are a chance to reminisce on success, failure, and the way time plays with those vexing injuries.  Still, not much is made on these gatherings either, as everyone who uses the knuckleball treats it with the same kind of enthusiasm as someone who found a new way to work.

Of the old guard I really liked the short amount of time spent with Charlie Hough. He seems keen to the realities of the sport, even with a pitch like the knuckleball, that are only grazed upon.

Of the old guard I really liked the short amount of time spent with Charlie Hough. He seems keen to the realities of the sport, even with a pitch like the knuckleball, that are only grazed upon.

The visuals are about as crisp and pleasant as the participants.  There's no shortage of footage in pristine quality, but there's also not much else the images can be made to say with these images.  "Attractive men throw ball very well" is about the most I could muster outside of the welcome breaks to newsreel footage of pitchers past.

A great documentary can be made on the most seemingly boring subjects and while there does not seem to be the catalyst for greatness here with a bit of trimming it could have been good.  As it stands, I can only recommend it to the biggest fans of the pitch, the Red Sox (who are represented far more heavily than the Mets), and having something on that has the lightest touch of entertainment and information.

The "nice touch" is not always the one that bestows greatness.

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Knuckleball - TailKnuckleball (2012)

Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg.

Posted by Andrew

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