Movie Review: ‘The Phenom’

Sometimes I wonder if a short review would be acceptable for me. Readers might be okay if I were to say something like “The Phenom will put you to sleep” or “don’t bother”, but then I think of a line from the West Wing that went something like “anyone who uses three words when he could’ve used ten just isn’t trying”. I also prefer to try to find something nice to say in these things, even when it is a struggle (see my review of JeruZalem). So, let’s proceed and I will explain why I think this movie is boring and somewhere I will try to find something nice to say.

Baseball is still widely considered America’s favorite pastime. I even played little league t-ball a long, long time ago in a country far, far away. But, unless you are actually playing the game or really into the statistics, baseball can be a slow game with limited excitement. So too is The Phenom. It is roughly 90 minutes of talking from mostly depressed or angry characters with a focus on the major league rookie who isn’t all that like able except that his father is much worse. It tries to be melodramatic, but the story lacks something to make it resonate with this viewer.

The crux of the story follows a major league rookie who is having trouble focusing during games, so his manager sends him to a therapist in the form of Paul Giamatti. Together, they try to work out his issues which largely involves flashbacks to his ex-con father who aggressively pushed him to be the best baseball player he can be. Dr. Mobley (Giamatti) does his best, but Hopper (the rookie, played by Johnny Simmons) pushes back, showing signs of his father’s influence, and makes Dr. Mobley face his own past.
Ethan Hawke portrays Hopper Sr. who is about as overbearing as a parent can get while still technically having their kids’ best interest at heart (probably not a true statement, but one can hope they don’t get worse). Flashbacks show Hopper Sr. returning home from a stint in jail only to start pushing Hopper again against the will of his mother before ultimately returning to jail. It is horrible that he constantly yells at his son, but, on the other hand, it did get results and Hopper made it to the major league; though with his talent, he probably could have made it without the pressure that now affects his mentality.

I am hard-pressed to remember any redeeming qualities about Hopper. During another flashback, he admits to his girlfriend that he is just using her under the assumption that she is also using him and everybody always uses everybody else. While it might possibly be true, actually thinking like that can push people away; which leaves little surprise as to the path that their relationship took. We’re also asked to sympathize with a guy who instantly (to paraphrase a line from the movie) “makes more money than most will make in our entire lifetimes” because he did not have a great childhood.

Some people might love this movie because it shows the drama and internal struggle of a man trying to break away from his father’s abuse; an old tale that is told well-enough here. Others may like it because of the actors who are mostly phenomenal in their roles; I haven’t seen all of Giamatti’s movies, but I have yet to find one where I didn’t like his performance. Or people might like it because it shows that money cannot buy happiness. But, overall, I was bored and, once the credits started, I actually said out loud, “Really? That’s it?” There are hints that Hopper’s issues will start to get resolved, but it doesn’t really go anywhere on screen. It’s almost comparable to a baseball game that ends with a score of 1-0, there may have been some good plays along the way, but it took a long time to go nowhere until 1 hit scored.

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