Thursday, February 18, 2010

Impromptu Movie Review: Sugar

I'd been meaning to see Sugar for a long time. I don't usually go to movies in theaters but I had heard good things about this one via Rob Neyer and others, so it piqued my interest. I was still living on the Upper West Side at the time and on my walk home from work I noticed the title listed on the black and white board outside of the Lincoln Plaza Theaters (not the huge Lincoln Center complex with the IMAX a few blocks north, the one that shows more independent stuff closer to Columbus Circle). After a few more nights, I convinced a girl I was dating to go see it with me. We walked by to see what time it was playing, but it wasn't up on the board as we approached. When we asked the woman at the box office, it turned out they pulled it the night before.

Just before Christmas, I was browsing for gifts on Amazon and the movie showed up in my recommended items. I saw there was a used copy for about $5 and figured it was well worth that plus shipping. But I ended up buying the presents elsewhere and it sat in my cart for a couple of weeks before I thought of it again. By the time I checked back, the only used copies were fairly expensive and I lost the ambition to make the purchase.

Then, two weeks ago, Bryan Smith put up a post on FanGraphs about the movie and I made it a point to go back to Amazon to get a copy. With shipping it was something like $13. Over the weekend, I finally got around to watching it.

My favorite thing about Sugar is that it vividly captures a reality in baseball that we don't think of of willfully choose to disregard. We see someone like Robinson Cano arrive in the Bronx with the ability to play in the Majors, but take for granted that he had to come up through the minors and learn countless lessons in order to pick up on the nuances of American culture. What we almost never consider at all are the prospects from other countries that never pan out and what happens to them after they've given up their dream to make it to the Majors.

The main character, Miguel "Sugar" Santos, starts in the fictional Kansas City Knights training camp in the Domincan Republic, where players not only improve their skills but learn simple baseball terms like "I got it" and "fly ball" in English. When he gets invited to come to the States and begin his ascent through the minors, he's throw into a completely unfamiliar situation.

While playing baseball in the United States does represent a great opportunity for the lucky prospects that make it here, coming from the Dominican Republic (or Venezuela, or Mexico, or especially Cuba) being thrust into America has to be extremely disorienting.

One of the best scenes of the movie comes in a restaurant when he first comes to Spring Training. One of the Dominicans, Jorge, had been in camp before and takes a few of the new recruits out to a diner. With their eyes glazing over looking at the unfamiliar menu, Jorge orders French toast. Reluctant to try pick or pronounce any of the foreign items on the menu, they all get French toast.

Sugar continues with his routine until one night, sitting in the booth alone, he works up the courage to order eggs. The waitress asks how he'd like them, and unable to to understand what "scrambled" or "over easy" means, he reverts to French toast once again. The waitress brings him what he ordered, but in addition, drops off a plate with three different kinds off eggs for him to try and explains which is which.

Sugar gets called up to Kansas City's minor league team in Bridgeport, Iowa and is given a host family. They seem to be genuinely kind and generous, but their Spanish is just as bad as his English. During a tour of the house, the mother uses the Spanish word for "soup" when referring to "soap".

Unlike so many baseball movies, Sugar is subtle and understated. Sure, for baseball geeks like us, some of the technical baseball stuff seems a bit hokey, but the movie isn't as much about baseball as it is experiencing America from the outside with the game serving as a conduit.

In stark contrast to films like The Natural, the Major League series, and Rookie of the Year, Sugar doesn't require you to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy it. As opposed to Mr. Baseball, it doesn't need a superstar to drive it's plot. Unlike Field of Dreams, it didn't even require a trained actor to play the lead role.

It's hard to make a good baseball movie. Take a look through this list and that fact will become even more apparent. Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck struck a perfect balance between being over the top and being boring which, given the history of the genre, is extremely hard to do. Highly recommended.