Exploiting the Archives: Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #15 The Man from Left Field
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0, the column where I give kindly patrons who make a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to this website’s Patreon page the power to make me watch and then write about a motion picture of their choice. It's quickly become one of my all-time favorite features because it provides a much-needed influx of money into the site’s perpetually suffering Patreon page, but also because it's introduced me to exquisitely terrible camp treasures I otherwise might never know about, much less see, write about and share with the world.
That’s true of The Man from Left Field, an inspirational 1993 television movie directed by Burt Reynolds that casts the Boogie Nights star as the shadowy, mysterious and God-like title character, an amnesia-riddled hobo who steps in to coach a desperate little league team and solves all of his player's personal problems as a bonus.
The hilariously narcissistic vanity project was selected by my friend Mike Sacks, who recently guested on Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast in connection with the blockbuster audio book for Nathan Rabin’s Literature Society selection Stinker Lets Loose, which cast John Hamm in the lead role and Phillip Baker Hall as his antagonist.
Incidentally, I am adding a new wrinkle to Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. To encourage more pledges of this variety, I would be happy to plug anything you’d like highlighted in the article I write about your film, whether it’s a website or a podcast, movie, Twitter account, or a book like Randy: The Full and Complete Unedited Biography and Memoir of the Amazing Life and Times of Randy S.!, a self-published memoir that Mike will be releasing through his Sunshine Beam Publishing shingle on September 11th of this year.
When most folks look over a list of films they must see, then write about, they’re understandably drawn to the best, the cream of the crop. Not me. I’ve got movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Roger Dodger on my Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 list but I am instead drawn to the worst films on the list, the oddball obscurities that can’t possibly be any good but promise to be terrible in unforgettable ways.
In addition to writing two of the best books ever written about the art and craft of comedy, the interview collections, And Here’s the Kicker and Poking a Dead Frog, Sacks is a humorist and novelist who clearly did a deep, exhaustive study of the hirsute, gum-chewing uber-masculinity of the 1970s in preparation for unleashing Stinker Lets Loose on a grateful world.
There’s undeniably a lot of Clint Eastwood in the fictitious novelization’s protagonist, particularly the dumbass bare-knuckle brawler he played in Any Which Way But Loose and Every Which Way You Can, but there’s even more Burt Reynolds, the mustachioed, gum-cracking alpha male of the 1970s. Anti-hero Stinker is like a feral version of the stock Burt Reynolds character played in vehicle-based vehicle after vehicle-based vehicle, albeit with all of the caveman crudeness and little of the stoic tough guy charm.
The Man from Left Field hit at a transitional time in Reynolds’ career. His days of headlining theatrically released vehicles were drawing to a close but he hadn’t yet reinvented himself as a sly, committed character actor with memorable turns in Citizen Ruth, Striptease and particularly Boogie Nights.
Reynolds still had the clout to get like The Man from Left Field made with himself in the director’s chair but it debuted on the small screen instead of thousands of big screens.
Imagine a cross between a non-ironic version of the Mr. Show sketch about the monks squaring off against fat rich kids and a feature-length ego massage wherein the director-star plays a magical hobo who is equal parts Casey Stengel, Mr. Rogers, Jesus, Ward Cleaver and Mike Tyson and you have a sense of The Man from Left Field’s peculiar mojo.
The opening credits whipped me into a frenzy of anticipation. Every new name made my heart soar. Characters named “Peanut” and “Bama!” Football legend and announcer Joe Theisman in a rare dramatic role as the college boy coach of the preppie evil team! Un film de Burt Reynolds! Every element promises camp bliss and oh sweet lord does it ever deliver.
The unintentionally hilarious tear-jerker centers on an ostensibly lovable band of baseball-loving underdogs who are just too damn poor even for baseball. As one of these off-brand Bad News Bears grouses, “Just once I’d like to play on a field where the bases aren’t tin cans and the mound isn’t a stack of old newspapers!”
Now, I grew up very poor and can attest that uniforms may be pricey, but otherwise baseball is not such a prohibitively expensive game that only the mimosas-and-monocle crowd can afford to play it. Ya basically need a ball and a bat, but The Man from Left Field romanticizes the kind of desperately poor sad sacks who wish they had the money and resources to play stickball.
They're like those fabled stickball players from the distant, fictionalized past who couldn't afford equipment so they used a dead rat as a ball, wood stolen from shoddy coffins for a bat and tetanus-spreading rusty nails as bases.
These kids are somehow too poor and scruffy to attract a proper coach, and when they hire an abusive alcoholic to pretend to be their coach so that they can play in a league, he repays their kindness with some of his trademark drunken abusiveness. The pint-sized baseball bunch is so angry that they pelt him with mudballs. We last see the abusive alcoholic getting hit by an angrily hurled globs of mud and tumbling drunkenly down the stairs. We never see him hit the bottom, or ever again, so I’m just going to assume that he died of head wounds incurred in the fall and that our anti-heroes have at least a modest body count.
The makeshift team still needs an adult coach so when they spot an ominous, silent, fedora-clad man dressed in all black despite the blazing heat (Reynolds) they decide to pass him off as their coach even though he initially comes off less like a fun-loving adult who can be roped into their mischievous scheme than a serial killer whose most horrifying crimes all lurk ominously in his near future.
As played by Reynolds, the title character is a man who has seen things. Horrible, horrible things. Things no man should ever have to see. But he’s also clearly done things as well. Equally horrible, horrible things. He’s killed men. He’s killed animals. He knows what it feels like to lick salty, dirty, red-black blood off a dripping wet machete. He’s intentionally given people fatal doses of morphine. He’s dead inside.
Of course the movie doesn’t establish any of that through dialogue. On the contrary, our hero is downright Christ-like in his ways, albeit a Jesus who wouldn’t think twice about beating a towering hulk half to death for abusing his son, but the vibe he gives off in his black fedora and black trenchcoat without a shirt is undeniably redolent of murder and whiskey.
Before he becomes everybody’s best friend and savior, his thousand yard stare sends out the message, “I’ve killed before and can’t wait to kill again.”
The aura he gives off is terrifying and intimidating, but that doesn't keep the boys from not only choosing him to be their fake/real coach but also idolizing him. The Man from Left Field originally comes off like a cross between Billy Jack and Charles Manson but he soon proves to be a managerial savant when he gives his players wise counsel like telling his pitcher to throw three consecutive strikes over the plate.
All it takes is a shave and a haircut to transform the man they’ve chosen to name Jackie Robinson’s look from “Murderous hobo” to “Cosmopolitan naked centerfold a couple of decades on.”
The entire team looks on voyeuristically as “Jackie” goes from shaggy to hunky. The overjoyed baseball enthusiasts spend a lot of time gazing at their handsome coach voyeuristically as he does non-coach things like get groomed, chop wood in a sleeveless ensemble that really highlights the aging hunk’s impressive muscles and ask one of the boy's mothers, played, inevitably, by an extremely on-brand Reba McEntire, on a date.
It turns out that despite not being able to remember anything about his past, “Jackie Robinson” is not only a brilliant, natural baseball coach but also a mentor so divine and saintly that the boys can’t help but wonder whether the new man in their life was sent by Jesus Himself to save them and fix all their problems.
What kind of problems? Well, one of the boys is being physically abused by their demented hillbilly dad until two-fisted Hobo Jesus shows up at his home to pummel him into being less of a monster. It’s the Tao of Burt in a nutshell: pretty much everything can be resolved through violence, so it’s important to be good at punching bad people in the face.
Then there’s the bespectacled Poindexter of the crew, who gets made fun of because his dad is a gardener so he constantly reeks of feces and animal excrement, something the snobby bad kids razz him about something awful. But the titular problem-solver explains, in what I imagine Burt thought of as his “Emmy speech” that true greatness comes not from having money or being successful or not smelling like excrement, but rather from character. Tis better to be a man of strong moral character who smells so bad he makes people want to vomit in disgust whenever they’re near him than to own the world and be a creep. That’s Burt 3:16.
Finally, there’s the team’s sole African-American, whose grandfather tells him early in the film that he’s old as fuck and about to enter that big “vacation” called the Afterlife where he’ll be reunited with his wife and son, leaving his tiny grandson in charge. It’s pretty much the Clarence Carter's song “Patches” minus the music. True to his word, grandpa climactically casts off his mortal coil and his devastated grandson is so distraught that he runs up a tree overlooking a lake and ends up plummeting to his watery doom.
Or at least he would if Jackie Robinson/The Man from Left Field didn’t jump in to save the boy’s life. The water ends up jolting awake our hero’s buried memories and in an astonishingly melodramatic turn of events, he ends up reliving his entire dramatic life in a crazed fever while lying on the grass, with a very confused Reba McEntire looking on in confusion and mortification.
It turns out "Jackie" was a former professional baseball player and a doctor or something. I dunno. It’s all very confusing and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, not unlike Burt’s decision to deliver his big monologue where he all at once comes to terms with his past life and true reality with a rock obscuring the lower half of his face, so we can’t see his lips moving. It’s hard to convey feverish emotion with just the top half of your face, particularly when you’re not an especially expressive actor in the first place.
The Man from Left Field belongs to a strange subgenre of movies about precocious kids who finagle an unethical or desperate adult into a weird, almost assuredly illegal and unethical scheme they don’t tell their parents or other responsible adults about, and we’re supposed to find their actions adorable and mischievous instead of the kind of deeply wrong transgressions that would probably get them sent to juvenile hall forever, if not stabbed at some point in real life.
Left Field seems to think there's nothing cooler for a misfit kid than to have an intense, secret relationship with a mysterious adult with a shadowy past and unclear motives that their parents know nothing about when, to be honest with you, that sounds creepy as fuck because it is creepy as fuck, even when the shadowy drifter turns out to be the world's best guy.
Reynolds' riotous TV movie is a delirious melodrama that lurches from one preposterously overwrought set-piece to another. It’s easy to see why Reynolds found the material irresistible: he basically plays the greatest man ever and pretty much every scene is a big scene, one that will afford him yet another opportunity to egregiously over-emote.
Directing is fundamentally all about choices. Reynolds makes pretty much every single one wrong, climaxing with a closing scene where the title character, having been restored to a place of prominence in society, returns to his ragtag gang of baseball-obsessed underdogs triumphantly only this time they’ve got spiffy new uniforms.
Well, they ostensibly have spiffy new uniforms because in actuality they’ve been cursed with almost impressively hideous uniforms boasting a hideous caricature of a Native American that’s equally appalling on a moral and an aesthetic level. Reynolds could have gone with any team name. There are so many! And so many of them are cute and animal themed: the Bears! The Cubs! So why, for the love of God, did he decide to call them the Indians and give them a mascot that’s like The Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo but bolder in its retro bigotry?
It’s that kind of insane, egregiously wrong detail that separates divine, sublime garbage like this from run-of-the-mill trash.
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