Some baseball stories are exciting even to non-fans, and in theory, “Undrafted” should be one of them. Over 30 years ago, writer (and fantasy baseball pioneer) Daniel Okrent used a 1982 regular season Milwaukee Brewers/Baltimore Orioles game as the basis for “Nine Innings.” From the perspective of an outsider, the book offered one of the purest glimpses at the details that make the sport a rewarding watch. What Okrent did in 288 pages, writer-director Joe Mazzello tries unsuccessfully to do in 105 minutes with his new film “Undrafted.” From a inspired-by-a-true-story premise, “Undrafted” takes that one-game premise inside the dugout, watching a team of hapless amateurs stare down a crucial league playoff matchup in the wake of learning that their best player was overlooked at the MLB Draft.
“Team” is a loose term here, as the dozen players and their accompanying, overriding personalities never really seem like a cohesive group. There are the standouts: Philip Winchester as Fotch, the semi-pro vet trying to keep one foot in the game, Tyler Hoechlin as Dells, the soft-spoken, noodle-armed starting pitcher and Aaron Tveit as Mazetti, the team’s MVP and eventual rallying point. But the rest of the roster does little more than exist as walking punchlines, fodder for cheap jokes and improv exercises better off on a gag reel.
The easy 2016 Baseball Movie comparison to make to “Undrafted” is “Everybody Wants Some!!” a film that also features Hoechlin in a supporting role. But the more apt comparison is Noah Buschel’s “The Phenom,” a film that emphasizes character over gameplay, intellect over cliche and grounded family drama over sappy heart-tugging, choices that make that film the precise opposite of “Undrafted.”
Where “The Phenom” aimed its focus on one star player, “Undrafted” tries to make a ragtag baseball team from a bevy of players with quirks dialed up so high they overwhelm every other aspect of the film. Prone to anger issues? Here’s a temper tantrum that lasts three minutes. Intent on wasting innate talent? Let’s make you the crucial part of a far-too-long Backstreet Boys riff.
READ MORE: ‘The Phenom’ Review: Not Your Typical Baseball Movie
“Undrafted” is a baseball movie that never wants you to forget that it’s about baseball, even if that reminder comes with lengthy dugout anecdotes delivered to teammates who are surprisingly indifferent to the outcome of a game that’s supposed to mean so much. While the uniforms are all in place and the field looks believably unkempt, this is a baseball team the same way Frank Abagnale is a lawyer in “Catch Me If You Can” — over-exaggerated for an audience that would sooner see its simple story presented without so much obvious effort.
There’s a reason why baseball movies rarely spend much time with on-field drama. Baseball is a game of pauses and rhythms that don’t align with the efforts of a film trying to fill in a roster’s worth of backstory at the same time. Now lauded as one of the sport’s literary standard-bearers, “Nine Innings” benefited in one significant way: Okrent was in the stands. Pivoting to an explanatory backstory works in written form, but when “Undrafted” wedges in a father-son subplot with Jim Belushi as Mazetti’s father, it seems like an overcompensation for what’s lacking on the field. As the full view of a season, this story might work. But condensing these stories into one game results in a muddled and overstuffed quality.
Having a competent team to follow doesn’t necessarily guarantee narrative brilliance, but when a late-film shift in team leadership gives Mazetti a chance to assume the inspirational speech duties, it’s one of the first times “Undrafted” feels like it’s tapping into an element of baseball that isn’t played for goofiness.
An onscreen graphic calls the bottom of the ninth the “final inning,” a clue that, along with the shadow-averse lighting and a score that uses any number of the familiar uplifting-drama shortcuts, this story would be more at home as a mid-2000s ABC Family series than a feature film.
READ MORE: Review: ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’ is an Old School Richard Linklater Movie
“Undrafted” occasionally stumbles on some redeeming dugout banter, like a frank discussion of the way baseball scouts use coded language to evaluate minority prospects. There’s even a glimmer of hope at the beginning that “Undrafted” might pivot to the most ambitious baseball-based musical this side of “Damn Yankees” (which would be fitting given Tveit’s Broadway chops).
But all of these potential avenues are ignored in favor of farcical diversions that rob the game of any substance. Despite cribbing from other baseball films (a defiant crowd at one point shouts “Let them play!” a la “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”), this is standard-issue sports fare that still seems intent on grafting unnecessary piles of story on top. After the film’s closing sequence, “Undrafted” features handheld camera footage from the game that inspired it. The short clip is proof that when it comes to baseball movies, beating the real thing is always the biggest challenge.
“Undrafted” opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, July 15.
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