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Remind Me

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The next time Pete Rose tries to convince America that his propensity toward gambling won't taint the Baseball Hall of Fame, he should mention Cobb, Ron Shelton's biopic of Cyrus "Ty" Cobb, arguably the greatest hitter in the game's history, and the first man enshrined in the Hall. It's not exactly a scoop at this point, but Shelton makes it abundantly clear that Cobb was one ornery, lying, alcoholic, racist, sexist S.O.B. Raging Bull's Jake LaMotta looks like a vaguely troubled boy scout in comparison. Rose looks like a gum-chomping Mother Teresa.

If only Cobb (now available on DVD from Warner Video) was a better movie. The opening is promising, with a Citizen Kane-like newsreel describing the many highlights of The Georgia Peach's fabled career: he hit over .400 over a five-year stretch, still has the highest lifetime batting average of any player, and set all kinds of base stealing records. Then Shelton jumps to 1960, where sports writer Al Stump (Robert Wuhl) is contacted by Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) and asked to write an account of his life. Stump drives through a treacherous snowstorm to meet Cobb in his Lake Tahoe cabin, a decision he'll soon regret.

A variety of diseases have left Cobb a pill-popping, insulin-injecting wreck, and he openly revels in his own nastiness. But he's wrangled final approval on the proposed book, and intends to feed his fans a glossy load of lies that have little to do with his actual life. Stump, on the other hand, thinks the truth should absolutely be told. Shelton's narrative then turns into a series of hot-blooded debates over how the book should be written, with Cobb pulling enough amoral stunts - both in the past and the present - to sink his legend forever.

This is a handsome-looking picture, but Shelton seriously miscalculates its tone. You can't tell if you're supposed to be darkly amused or simply appalled by Cobb. Jones is a charismatic performer, and, in this instance, that magnetism works to his detriment. He seems to be having too much good ol' boy fun for Cobb to be legitimately evil; even his near-rape of a Reno cocktail waitress (played by Lolita Davidovich) contains a grotesque punch line. Only the electrifying, spikes-flying game sequences contain believable fury.

Still, the biggest drawback has got to be Wuhl, a sitcom-ready actor who's not even remotely capable of holding his own with a powerhouse like Jones. When in doubt Wuhl opts for bug-eyed astonishment, and he seems to be in doubt through the better part of the movie. With all the care that went into the production - Russell Boyd's lush cinematography stands out in the disc's gorgeous 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer - it's rather astonishing that Shelton would risk using such an unschooled hambone in a pivotal role.

But, alas, he did. At least Warner Bros. didn't skimp on the extras, so you have other things to concern yourself with, not that they're much more invigorating. There are two commentary tracks, one by Shelton, and one in which Jones and Wuhl alternate. Shelton's is far more informative; he's a lively narrator, and you can tell his heart was invested in every frame of the picture. Jones and Wuhl, on the other hand, add little of interest, outside of Wuhl selflessly pointing out that he's really not much of an actor. Thanks for your help, Bob.

You also get a couple of shorts: The Real Al Stump shows (you guessed it) the real Al Stump during a visit to the set, and On the Field with Roger Clemons is an equally self-explanatory behind-the-scenes piece in which the Yankee hurler makes a cameo as one of Cobb's rivals. Then there's a few rightfully deleted scenes, and the usual trailer that makes the movie look more dour than it actually plays. It's really too bad. Shelton and Warner Bros. may have gotten a lot of wood on the ball, but a long fly out is still an out. This one is mainly for baseball buffs, and easy-to-please ones at that.

For more information about Cobb, visit Warner Video. To order Cobb, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Tatara