For a film that’s nominally a sports movie, there’s something conspicuously absent from “The Phenom”: teammates. Instead, writer-director Noah Buschel carves out the time usually spent on building camaraderie and team-based drama to hone in on a single player. Without that team as the go-to filter to understand this talented-but-struggling pitcher, what follows in “The Phenom” is an atypical meditation on what it means to succeed on stages great and small.
Johnny Simmons stars as Hopper Gibson, a young righthander consigned to a rehab assignment after his lack of control derails a promising career. His team enlists the help of Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a renowned sports psychologist, to help unlock the mental secret to restoring Hopper to winning ways. While Hopper and Mobley philosophize over the nature of mental blocks, Buschel intersperses scenes from the player’s past family turmoil and struggles as a high school standout.
Buschel’s no stranger to athlete protagonists in sports-adjacent films. Those who’ve caught up with last year’s underseen “Glass Chin” know that having a boxer as a protagonist doesn’t necessarily mean that the audience is going to see many punches thrown. “The Phenom” shows more of Hopper on the mound than Corey Stoll’s character saw in the ring, but it’s clear that both of Buschel’s last two films are far more concerned with off-the-field milestones.
We don’t see Hopper’s first shutout or a victorious outing in a state championship or a montage of him mastering an unhittable breaking ball. Baseball is merely the springboard for the people on the periphery of Hopper’s life to launch into musings on relationships, family and the future. This is a fractured series of vignettes stemming from a fractured psyche, wrestling with the pitfalls of fame and expectations.
Walk into a clubhouse at any professional level and you’ll find at least a handful of men or women who’d be perfectly fine never having to give a postgame interview for the rest of their careers. Tasked with capturing this particular brand of apathy, Simmons plays Hopper’s athlete nihilism perfectly. There’s no rousing Crash Davis monologue here. When Hopper claims to love baseball, it’s clear that it’s the warped kind of affection that comes from never experiencing a proper substitute.
Giamatti adds the occasional pep to his scenes with Simmons, but the two are a distinctly muted pair, well-suited for the film’s low key feel. As Mobley is the hopeful pillar to Hopper’s present, Hopper’s father (Ethan Hawke) is the rotting foundation of the young man’s past. Once Buschel gets past the overzealous characterization of Hawke’s introduction (smoking inside without permission, having a fully unbuttoned shirt, lounging with his boots up on the couch and demanding a beer from the fridge), the repeated scenes of physical and mental abuse shed some light on what latent frustration might be motivating Hopper’s rough patch. Hawke commits to his tyrannical distant father role, showing how the twin motivations of physical punishment and future glory might have been enough to keep a young Hopper from objecting.
“Glass Chin” benefited greatly from a career-best villain turn from Billy Crudup, a standout among a short cast list. Here, Buschel fans out his ensemble to show that an athlete’s past can’t be restricted to a handful of individuals. But a majority of the supporting players are spread just too thin. To wit: Paul Adelstein seems right at home as Hopper’s agent (named Scott Borwitz, a winking nod to Scott Boras, the sport’s most infamous player rep), but the film’s already devoted much of its 87-minute runtime to high school and media threads before he arrives for his lone sequence.
And despite Buschel’s admirable attempts to strip sports movies of their glossy trappings, the stylistic flair he adds in that wake only seldom lands. Baseball and ballet aren’t the strangest of bedfellows, but the one red-drenched sequence designed to represent Hopper’s hangups doesn’t lead to any extra understanding of his psychological condition.
Sports jargon only crops up sporadically: This is a film that’s far quicker to make references to literature than ones to Hall of Famers. (Sophocles never had his picture on a bubblegum card, but Borwitz does sneak in a pretty solid Tiresias jab.) “The Phenom” is successful in being a baseball movie that’s not about baseball — and admirably so. But the vast list of things it prioritizes above the diamond seem to come from disparate eras, as if the movie can’t settle on a single tone: readings from Jazz Age memoirs, a femme fatale with Lolita glasses and reporter dialogue that harkens back to something out of “His Girl Friday.”
As a result, “The Phenom” wanders through a series of half-formed ideas. When Buschel narrows his focus and has a handle on these characters’ essences, there are flashes of greatness. All he needs is a tighter grip.
“The Phenom” opens in theaters on Friday.