Like many films adapted from biographies of lesser known figures, the story of Boston Red Sox catcher Morris Berg demands the reaction: “That wasn’t already a movie?”
But there we were in Sundance on Friday night, lining up for the premiere Paul Rudd’s buzzy drama “The Catcher Was a Spy,” directed by Ben Lewin from a book by Nicholas Dawidoff. Rudd plays Berg, who in this telling is a Jewish closeted homosexual athlete recruited to stop the Nazis from developing an atom bomb.
That’s pretty heavy lifting for the most versatile of our leading men, let alone America’s Favorite Nice Guy Paul Rudd. It’s also staggering that such a story might be true and thus far untold, not just in our political climate but in independent film’s deep tradition of amplifying outsiders.
We meet Rudd’s Berg at the twilight of his baseball career, resisting a switch from playing to coaching. He’s already an odd man out because of his age, but also his superior intellect. Berg held three degrees in various fields, spoke several languages and was a frequent guest star on a popular radio quiz show before he was recruited to help his country during World War II.
“Catcher” was a hot property for many of the specialty labels housed at bigger studios before Hollywood arrived to Park City, TheWrap previously reported. Distributors were drawn by the script, which has UTA and Film Nation handling domestic and international sales rights, respectively.
We heard from more than one executive about their fandom of Lewin, whose 2012 film “The Sessions” starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes did so-so in that year’s awards race. Many buyers showed up on Friday to Park City’s The MARC Theater excited to screen the film.
But Mighty Paul may have struck out. Almost instantly, the film confronted an underreported (perhaps on purpose) storyline about Berg’s sexuality that caused confusion over whether his suspected (and very taboo for the time) queerness was genuine or just fallout from his intense secrecy.
Sienna Miller stars as Berg’s female companion Estella*, whom he’s always disappointing and never marrying and leaving high and dry to go be a spy. They have a steamy love scene pressed up against a piano early on, but only after Berg violently beats a handsome Red Sox rookie who accuses him of being a “homo.”
The crowd got fidgety as exposition started flying: Berg is recruited into government service where Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce and Paul Giamatti form a ragtag team of army generals and scientists who send him to Europe to figure out if a renowned physicist is developing an atom bomb for the Germans.
While you may think his quirky charm, high IQ and gift for languages might be the asset, the film dissolves into a dilemma over whether or not Berg can kill another man and justify it to his god.
So much of the nuance and the outright, exhilarating contradictions of a man like Berg are burned off in the exhaust of a roving and disjointed war story — like Berg’s implied affair with a male Japanese history buff (Hiroyuki Sanada) who assures him that, yeah, the U.S. and Japan are headed to conflict before they get down to persona business.
Rudd has won big with hard left turns, like his unexpected superhero success with “Ant-Man,” but that project hung on his affable charm. “Catcher” didn’t really give the Sundance audience anything to hold on to.
*Editor’s Note: We cannot stomach another woman-behind-the-man role for Sienna Miller. She deserves more. Someone make it happen.