Greetings again from the darkness. For us baseball fans, seeing the sport on the big screen can be bliss (THE SANDLOT, 1993) or extreme torture (ED, 1996). Actually, with any sports movie, the pressure is on the filmmakers and cast to be respectful to the talent and athleticism required to play that game. When they succeed, it can be a wonderful blend of movie and sport. When they fail, it can be maddening … a cinematic version of fingernails on a chalkboard.
Director Raymond De Felitta delivered an excellent (and underappreciated) little gem in 2009 entitled CITY ISLAND. This time out he’s working from a script by Robert Bruzio (his first feature film screenplay). It begins with Sonny Stano (played by Joseph Manganiello) being released from Sing Sing Prison. He has served nearly two decades (since 1999) after accidentally killing someone just after signing a big contract with the New York Yankees right out of his Bronx high school … in the shadow of historic Yankee Stadium. See, Sonny was a baseball legend in the area – a “sure thing” to become the next Yankees legend. He even has a Mickey Mantle jersey mounted on the wall of his childhood apartment, alongside numerous pennants, trophies and sport photographs.
All those years ago, Sonny left behind not only baseball, but his high school sweetheart Angela (Sofia Vergara), who is now a single mom raising her young daughter. Of course, once Sonny and Angela bump into each other at the market, we know where this is headed. Just like we know where it’s headed when Sonny’s old Coach Hannis (Michael Rispoli) invites him to help out with the local Yankees minor league affiliate … in particular, a young hot shot player who is mouthy and uncoachable. Along the way, we also see Sonny’s Parole Officer (Denis O’Hare, in a “True Blood” reunion with Manganiello) and Angela’s less-than-welcoming cop/brother (Yancey Arias). They don’t call them stereotypes for nothing. It is nice to see Burt Young appear as a grizzled baseball scout, and fortunately Brian Cashman and Bernie Williams are the only Yankees who make a cameo appearance (awkwardly with no dialogue).
The idea is strong enough to work as an inspirational, second-chance-in-life sports movie; however, it all falls apart once Sonny hits the diamond. He moves like a weightlifter, not a ballplayer. His swing, supposedly capable of mashing pitches into the stratosphere, looks no different with a bat than with the sledge hammer he uses in one scene. The throwing motion is even more cringe-inducing. Still, we have been known to overlook such things in movies if there is a real life lesson. Unfortunately, despite his scenes reconnecting with Angela, we never find Sonny very likeable or easy to root for. Reading “King Rat” (James Clavell’s debut novel about his time as a POW) and wanting to take a business class is not enough to overcome the fact that he immediately quits the job that his friend gave him … the same friend who helped him get paroled. Plus, Sonny wears a constant scowl and tries to lecture, rather than lead, the prodigy he’s been assigned.
The fictional Staten Island Empires are a joke to watch, and it’s ludicrous to believe Sonny would catch the Yankees’ attention while taking BP for them. The scenes that do work are the quiet moments between real life husband and wife Mr. Manganiello and Ms. Vergara. Their scenes, while a nice reprieve from the clumsy baseball ones, are simply not enough to inspire us or give us reason to cheer the obvious and easy-to-predict developments. And another thing … why is it always the Yankees?