The first thing that likely needs saying about a film like The Perfect Game is that it’s the kind of film that you absolutely want to like but the execution of this tale made it difficult if not impossible. There are myriad reasons you want to like it: the based-on-a-true-story aspect, the fact that it covers a simple sport in a simpler time, the fact that this film (like many about the Little League game) wallowed in undistributed obscurity and the fact that the success of certain cast members after the fact and the power of social networking helped it to be released, at least in part. However, all of that is peripheral to the film and can’t really factor in, which is unfortunate because it is a great story.
One of the major stumbling blocks this film faces is a problem of accents and language. The film is a tale of the ragtag team from Monterrey, Mexico that was the first to capture the Little League World Series crown. It would’ve been best if the film had been shot in Spanish, instead we get stereotypical accents which waver despite the arduous efforts of some cast members and the young core of the film is quite talented and likely able to handle it. To compound this problem the one kid they did have deliver an entire line in Spanish couldn’t deliver it so it was poorly-dubbed. Which brings to mind the other issue in films where accented English substitutes for a foreign language and that’s the quandary of when to venture into that foreign tongue. It’s usually best to never do so for a whole line especially if the actor being asked to deliver it can’t speak fluently.
There was, however, also inconsistency in the the casting of some pivotal roles. The first being Clifton Collins, Jr. as Cesar. Not only does his accent waver, as should be considered a given of almost anyone in the cast, but his delivery is frequently off. The prime example of this is when first addressing the media in Williamsport, PA he is concerned about the start time of their first game because that’s when the players have their siesta. Not only have we not seen a siesta in the film but the delivery is so poor you think he’s joking and poking fun at stereotypes about Mexicans. When immediately in the next scene you find out it’s true and is a legitimate complaint. Similarly when he’s being the tough coach you rarely get a glimpse of why the kids would like him regardless; it’s not a layered enough performance.
The second casting issue is more one of perception but in film in many cases perception is reality. Probably the most important person to this team is the town priest who travels with them most of the way to the series. This character is played by Cheech Marin. There’s nothing greatly wrong with Marin’s performance, as there is with many of the smaller supporting players who are unknowns, but he’s just not credible in this part as some other lesser known actor might’ve been. Lastly, there is Frances Fisher as Betty a beat reporter who is following the team, at first reluctantly and then willingly, who cannot decide what decade she was from or where she is from and ends up being a character without time or place.
The young cast aside from the accent issues, which was an affectation placed upon them, do deserve special mention and accolades for bringing forth most of the positive moments in this film. Namely they are: Jake T. Austin, who plays Angel Macías, the star pitcher of the team, who features in the film’s greatest moment when their coach reminds him that he’s Sandy Koufax (as the team was inspired to greatness by comparing themselves to the Brooklyn Dodgers) and he says “No, I’m Angel Macías,” which is followed by a triple-cut on his delivery of his last pitch which was awesome. Ryan Ochoa, the team’s wise-cracking catcher, Norberto, who in the narrative makes one of the great plays in the championship in what is one of the film’s special moments. Moises Arias, who is best known as Rico on the Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, should tap into this kind of character more, he’s a bit a pest but well-intentioned and not completely obnoxious. Lastly, there is Jansen Panetierre, who plays the amicable Enrique, who is one of the two star pitchers on the team who absolutely owns his moment when he was told he’d be starting the semi-final game when he thought he’d be passed over for Angel.
What is perhaps most maddening about this film is that it botched the simple and cliché and excelled in what was unique. What makes that even more frustrating is that a lot of what is cliché could’ve been removed from the film and and not hurt it any since it runs about two hours. There is much of the time where you feel like you could be watching The Mighty Ducks or any other sports or Disney project. There’s all the standard scenes which detract from the different tale this film is trying to tell. Which is not to detract from the aforementioned projects or company since this film didn’t handle the scenes nearly as well.
The first act of the film drags painfully and the pace never recovers. The film insists on setting things up slowly even though nothing terribly complicated or suspenseful is happening. For example, Cesar meets his love interest, Maria, for the first time and you know there will be flirtation and what this scene leads to is establishing a turbulent relationship but the pace of dialogue combined with the Bill Conti score, which in this project is always cheesy, make the scene seem interminable.
The film starts, like many do, with the “based on a true story” title card and that should be enough but it throws in archival footage as well and black & white traveling shots. This is rarely, if ever, effective and only really makes a difference at the end when you see real photos of scenes we saw re-enacted.
The bad start that this movie gets off to is almost overcome with wrinkles unique to this tale: the kids having never played on grass, the meeting with Cool Papa Bell, the trip through the segregated South, the relationship of Cesar and Maria, the preoccupation with the games that takes over Monterrey and the games themselves.
While I am sure there are likely a few liberties with history taken I won’t get too bogged down in the minutiae there, but rest assured if you survive the first act you will sit through the movie because it does indeed get better. Where it does suffer again later on is in a typically poor handling of sports on film. Yes, the story is about the characters, their relationship, their camaraderie and coming together for a common purpose but in a sports film you will inevitably have game scenes and we the audience need to know the stakes of each game and that wasn’t always the case. Similarly, as per usual, you got “Film Baseball,” which can apply to any sport and most movies, where editing made it easy to accomplish the desired result of a play. For once I’d just like to see a camera set up behind a pitcher, or the catcher, and see the whole play from windup to contact with no cuts.
If you are heading out to the movies as a fan of Little League Baseball, as I am, and want to see depicted on screen all that is good about the game, both past and present, you likely will not be disappointed. If you head out to see The Perfect Game as a fan of film you will likely be disappointed and will witnessed something far less than perfect.