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High and Outside: A Baseball Noir (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

High and Outside: A Baseball Noir


Starring Phil Donlon, Geoffrey Lewis, Ernie Hudson, Lindsey Haun, David Yow, Scarlett Fay, Eddie Jemison, Johnny Dowers, Jason James Richter, Camilla Cleese, David Proval, Iván Kamarás, Norma Michaels, Jules Bruff, Livia Treviño, Rivka Rivera, Jimmy Walker Jr. and Peter Jason.

Screenplay by Dan O’Dair.

Directed by Evald Johnson.

Distributed by Standard17. 98 minutes. Not Rated.

There is very little actual baseball in High and Outside: A Baseball Noir, and yet the sport pretty much suffuses the film. Technically, we are at a minor league game for the opening sequence, a pick-up game during the final scene, and have some short trips to the batting cage, but we do not see any additional playing onscreen.

High and Outside is not so much about the game as it is about the players and the love of the game. Specifically, it is about the players who never quite make it.

And perhaps, because it is about that failure to reach the dream, High and Inside is even more interesting than many films about superstars. This movie is like a dark cousin of Bull Durham, a hard-eyed look at the desperation of players who are not ready to give up.

Our entry point is with Phil Harding (Phil Donlon), a 38-year-old journeyman player who never really spent any time in the majors but has had a long and fairly productive career in the minors. Still, he is not willing to admit that he has hit the end of the line. His skills are eroding, and while he’s a good clubhouse guy, his play is no longer worth his higher salary to the minor league teams.

In the opening scene, his manager (Ernie Hudson in a nice supporting turn) must release him and tries to compassionately open Phil’s eyes to the fact that he no longer has what it takes to play effectively. However, Phil will not give up on the dream of playing, and perhaps even making it to the big show.

Phil’s father Len (played by terrific late character actor Geoffrey Lewis, in his final role) was a big star in the majors, and still a beloved name amongst baseball fans, if somewhat forgotten in real life. If we are to believe the rings shown, he was on seven or eight championship-winning teams over his career. (One of the World Series rings explicitly shown, from the 1988 Dodgers, would seem to make Len much younger than he actually is, though. Based on Lewis’ real age, he would have been in his mid-50s during that World Series. I suppose it is possible that he was a coach, but in one scene a character talks about his game-winning play in what seems to be that series. All the other championship rings shown are obviously much older.)

Len is a shell of himself compared to his playing days. Bothered by physical and mental impairments, he is walking slower, talking haltingly, often crotchety, paying a full-time caregiver/business manager named Sal (David Yow) and quickly running out of money. He makes a little cash from autographs, but can’t afford to pay for his long-time home, and is being pressured to move to an elder-care facility, because it would be paid for by insurance. However, he does not want to give up his independence.

Phil moves back into home with Len – he is separated from his wife (Lindsay Haun) but trying to win her back – and tries to regroup and catch on with another team. There are no bites, even Phil’s agent suggests he hang up his cleats, but Phil latches on to a plan to appear at a fantasy camp, where he may be noticed. The problem is, it costs $3,800, money that he doesn’t have, and he quickly learns his father does not have either.

Phil and Len have always had a strained relationship. Len is rather unforgiving of his son’s failings and Phil is tired of always trying unsuccessfully to live up to his father’s expectations. However, as he is scrounging for money, Phil – a recovering addict – ends up falling into some of his unsavory old habits, a netherworld of drugs, alcohol, strip clubs and meaningless sex.

Len, who is hard on his son, but will always do whatever he can for him, in the meantime must consider life in a nursing home and pawning the last thing he has of value – his World Series rings – to raise the money for Phil.

They are surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of people who Phil has disappointed or is disappointed in – old friends who drag him back into the seedy underworld, an ex-wife who loves him but does not trust him, a stripper girlfriend and Len’s nurse/manager, who Phil suspects has been stealing from his dad.

It makes for uncomfortable viewing sometimes, watching Phil spin out so fully as he deludedly holds on to a dream that has passed him by. However, High and Outside also has a ring of truth – you get the feeling that many journeyman athletes have gone through similar things, if perhaps not quite so dramatic. O’Dair’s screenplay gives the impression of knowing the game, and the people who play it, and idolize it.

The acting – particularly by Donlon, Lewis, Hudson and Haun – is pretty terrific.

This film has apparently been in the can for a few years now – Lewis died in 2015 soon after finishing work on the film – and it is nice to see it getting some exposure. It’s a small, intimate film that could get caught in the rundown on the playing field of indie features. Hopefully it will make it to the second base safely.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: April 29, 2018.

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