The Phenom strikes out on engaging baseball drama
Too methodically-paced with little payoff The Phenom is like a flamed out prospect that can’t make use of its potential.
Johnny Simmons (The To Do List) stars as Hopper Gibson, a pitching phenom struggling to regain his confidence. Sent to the minors to get control of his pitching, Hopper also seeks professional help.
Paul Giamatti (Straight Outta Compton) is Hopper’s therapist Dr. Mobley seeking to get him back on track.
The typical structure of these introspective films sees the character gradually break down their emotional walls. The audience is required to do a little emotional heavy lifting as well to chip away at the character’s initial presentation to get invested in their dilemma.
Director/Writer Noah Buschel can’t find enough progressive payoff to maintain that interest making The Phenom a lifeless character study.
Hopper is a character that’s a struggle to care about. His unaffected, barely checked in demeanor makes him a challenge to root for an emotional breakthrough or a big pro comeback. As the story unfolds he’s still largely the same mostly unlikable character we first meet.
For Hopper, life is baseball and everything else beyond that is a distraction from his first and only love. Simmons is unable to bring much spark to Hopper. Whether that’s intended for the role or just a flat performance, Simmons fails to give Hopper much of a presence.
That the source of Hopper’s woes are connected to his relationship with his father (Ethan Hawke, Predestination) doesn’t help much either. Hawke brings a fiery passion to the role as a former baseball prospect turned washout who evolved into a bottomed out loser.
It’s a sharp contrast to Hawke’s last fatherly figure role in Boyhood and it’s his performance that gives The Phenom some life. Buschel’s script doesn’t offer much by way of a fresh perspective on the cliché of a son not feeling loved by his father.
Giamatti is warm and comforting, but his role is limited. That’s disappointing as the film is at its best when Buschel keeps the focus on the player/shrink dynamic. It’s in this pressure to be perfect powder keg going through Hopper’s head that’s the most interesting aspect of The Phenom. Instead, Buschel largely uses these interactions to frame the next set of flashbacks.
Since Hopper is around the same age that’s not nearly as effective a storytelling tool as it would be with a clearer distinction of time. Even if it was something as simple as Hopper as a pro sporting a mustache to make it obvious when he’s in high school would have been helpful.
For his shortcomings with the script, Buschel stages some amazingly creative shots with unique perspectives. There’s been a ton of baseball movies over the years yet Buschel finds some fresh approaches in shooting life on the mound. Other shots are equally impressive. From a swimming pool encounter turned hotel hook up to an impromptu driveway training session, Buschel certainly makes the film look good if nothing else.
At 90 minutes, the slow burn pacing of the film feels tedious. But the out of nowhere ending feels so abrupt that it undercuts the film’s already awkward journey.
The Phenom could have been something greater than a daddy and me sports drama. Instead, it’s just another would-be classic stranded on base.
Rating: 4 out of 10
Photo Credit: RLJ Entertainment