Friday, February 21, 2014

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)



          While basically heartfelt and sincere, this downbeat saga of male friendship—set in the world of professional baseball—offers a litany of teachable moments for cinematic storytellers. At the most fundamental level, the film’s inconsequential plot overwhelms what should be a substantial story. But that’s not the only tactical error. Cornball music cheapens quiet moments that could have attained power if left unvarnished. Vincent Gardenia’s highly entertaining supporting performance, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination, is played so comically that it distracts from the film’s overall dramatic intentions. Worst of all, costar Robert De Niro’s presence—upon which the entire story hinges—is strangely minimized, which has the effect of transforming his crucial characterization into an abstraction. So, while it would be overreaching to describe Bang the Drum Slowly as a mess, it’s fair to say the movie has a significant identity crisis.
          Adapted by Mark Harris from his own novel of the same name, Bang the Drum Slowly depicts the exploits of a fictional New York baseball team, the Mammoths. Star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty) is best friends with second-rate catcher Bruce Pearson (De Niro), who just received a terminal diagnosis. Determined to help Bruce enjoy one last season of baseball without playing the sympathy card, Wiggen threatens not to sign his new contract unless Bruce’s position on the team is secured. This maneuver enrages coach Dutch Schnell (Gardenia), who then expends considerable effort investigating lies that Henry tells in order to obscure the real reason why he’s protecting Bruce. The whole business of Dutch parsing Henry’s stories is so contrived and silly that the amount of screen time given to that subplot is irritating, even though Gardenia’s slow burns and tantrums are great fun to watch. Similarly, Harris and director John Hancock push the mildly eccentric Henry to the foreground of the story—even though the real drama revolves around Bruce—and they fail to persuasively explain why Henry is so attached to Bruce.
          Seeing as how Bang the Drum Slowly hit theaters two years after the far more effective Brian’s Song scored on television, Bang the Drum Slowly pales by comparison. Still, the picture is not without its virtues, mostly related to acting. Beyond the wonderful Gardenia, De Niro overcomes miscasting as a redneck to create a likeably slow-witted persona; Moriarty contributes his signature style of cerebral weirdness; and Barbara Babcock and Selma Diamond, respectively, lend enjoyable flavors of aristocratic haughtiness and scratchy-voiced crudeness. As for the film’s would-be heartbreaker of an ending, it’s a nonevent compared to the climax of Brian’s Song, which has been making grown men cry since 1971.

Bang the Drum Slowly: FUNKY

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