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First, a disclaimer: There are those (ahem) who think the government should forget investigating cheating among people who hit balls with wooden bats and instead (for example) gather reliable data about cops who hurt civilians with guns. And who also think that, while the nonfiction film world is big enough for all sorts of not-so-serious topics, a documentarian who wants to explore the crimes athletes commit might focus on violence against women instead of doping, which mostly only hurts the reputation of a game that somehow convinced people it represented the pure and earnest soul of America.
With that out of the way, very few people who find themselves watching Billy Corben’s Screwball are going to deny that this look at the downfall of a Florida testosterone-hawker is a very entertaining film, stuffed with colorful idiots and serves-you-right twists. Silly in ways that reflect poorly of the filmmaker’s taste but will endear it to many viewers, it’s a true-crime tale that has much to do with Major League Baseball but requires no interest in the sport to enjoy.
This is not, thank goodness, another “shocking” exposé about the use of performance-enhancing drugs and the tarnishing of role models that Little Jimmy Mainstreet once saw as heroes. Nearly from the start, the film acknowledges that anybody alive in the last few decades who believed baseball was pure was a sap. It shows us the pumped-up arms of Jose Conseco, recalls the home-run record race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and implies you’d have to know nothing of human physiology to believe their feats weren’t chemically enabled. And you’d have to know nothing about corporations to believe the MLB wasn’t turning a blind eye, happy to have the ratings and ticket sales they owed to these ‘roided champs.
But when George W. Bush decided steroids were important enough for the State of the Union, things got tough. And a Miami-area “doctor” named Tony Bosch (who got his degree in Belize and had no license to write prescriptions in the U.S.) saw a way around more stringent drug testing. He started an anti-aging clinic (Florida, we learn, is an unregulated haven for quackery targeting the vain) and invented different protocols of micro-dosed supplements that didn’t show up in drug tests. An early client, baseball player Manny Ramirez, had such success with this system that he brought Bosch on the road with him. (We’re told the eccentric athlete would often need Bosch to sit with him at night, telling bedtime stories until he fell asleep.)
Despite some close calls with the law, Bosch’s business expanded. He formed partnerships with a chain of tanning salons owned by low-rent mobsters; he met a black-market dealer who could get him drugs when his Rolodex of no-ethics physicians ran dry. And through those salons, Bosch met a “tanning professional” named Porter Fischer. Driven by a deep need to be part of things, Fischer became a self-appointed hype man for Bosch’s operation; later, he made either a loan to or investment in the business. When Bosch (who lived far beyond his means) couldn’t pay him back on schedule, Fischer stole a trove of files containing evidence of his crimes. The crazy, evolving fate of those documents — Fischer leaked some to Miami journalist Tim Elfrink, others were stolen from Fischer, then sold and traded to various warring parties — is the heart of the movie.
Bosch and Fischer, like them or not, are quite engaging storytellers onscreen, talking at length with no apparent awareness of how they come off. Not content with this, Corben decides to fill the movie with reenactments of their anecdotes — with the interviewees recalling conversations in voiceover, while a cast of child actors in grown-up clothes lip-syncs the lines and mimes the action onscreen. Corben owes an apology to the makers of Ant-Man, who — thanks to the irrepressible comic delivery of Michael Peña — now own the lip-sync flashback technique as completely as Quentin Tarantino owns “Stuck in the Middle With You.” (On big screens, that is. On TV and the internet, the device belongs to Drunk History.) But the gimmick here is pointless, gilding the lily. (Just as Corben does with his on-the-nose music choices and sound FX.) These characters are childish enough already; the sight of grown-ups who lack the powers of adult judgment is kind of the point.
Tied up in all the action is the dishonesty of disgraced New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez, who had already publicly sworn off drugs, and thrown teammates under the bus for their own use, before he got in touch with Bosch and said, “I want whatever Manny was taking.” When the documents started to hit the fan, we’re told that A-Rod was one of the key players trying to gather them all up — him on one side, and some Keystone Cop detectives from MLB on the other. Even as all his dirty laundry started flapping in the wind, the star maintained an impossible self-righteousness.
Corben has nine documentary credits to his name. Three are installments in an enthusiastic series called Cocaine Cowboys, and two others before this one (if we count a portrait of the influential NYC disco Limelight) also revolve around the adventurous side of drug smuggling and sales. He seems to be painting himself into a corner, building his own lighthearted career around illicit drugs and making it hard to take him seriously when he wants to deal with rape or poverty in the occasional film. As with Bosch’s high-flying enterprise, that may be a shortsighted career plan.
Production company: rakontur
Director: Billy Corben
Screenwriters: Billy Corben, David Cypkin
Producers: Alfred Spellman, Billy Corben
Director of photography: B.J. Golnick, Alexa Harris
Editor: David Cypkin
Composer: 10K Islands
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: 30 West
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