Writer/director Noah Buschel is a Tribeca Film Festival favorite, so that might explain why his latest film, The Phenom, is in this year’s festival. If that’s not the reason, I can’t imagine why the festival decided to feature this film otherwise, because it’s as slow-moving and uninteresting as a bad baseball game.
Actor Johnny Simmons, who stars in The Phenom as a young Major League Baseball pitcher whose arm has gone wonky, plays his character as if he’s completely disinterested in the movie he’s acting in. In fact, Simmons also stars in Dreamland, another Tribeca film that is imperfect, but at least he shows in that he can act and play an interesting character. So it’s not Simmons’ fault that Hopper Gibson is a character that just isn’t interesting. If Buschel expected the audience to care about this character, he probably should’ve have added more to his personality in order to make him less of a generic sports character.
Another odd decision in The Phenom is Buschel’s tendency to have his characters slip into speeches full of unrealistic purple prose. In particular, Hopper’s high school girlfriend Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is stuck pontificating on Darwinism and socialism for who knows what reason.
Simply put, The Phenom is just a generally uninteresting movie. It’s a baseball movie with very little baseball, and what it might have to say about sports psychology or the effect that 24 hour news coverage has on athletes is left unexplained. For example, Paul Giamatti portrays a sports psychologist who once had another superstar pitcher as a client that committed suicide. That’s a potentially interesting plot point, but it doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, that’s the main problem with The Phenom — the story could go in several interesting directions, but never does.
From a narrative standpoint, so many parts of The Phenom don’t make sense. For instance, Hopper’s throwing issues seem to be tied to the emotionally harsh treatment from his ex-con, drug-dealing father, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Why he is still in the picture after multiple arrests and his abusive behavior is not explained. Why does Hopper’s mother let him return to the house when she knows how he treats their son? Why does she go with him to one of Hopper’s games when she knows he’s going to be disruptive and embarrass their son?
Giammati and Hawke and being used as a draw here, but their roles are so up their usual alleys that they essentially sleepwalk through them. But by far the oddest thing about The Phenom is that it’s essentially a serious take on the plot of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby — a top competitor loses his skills in part because of unresolved daddy issues and has to resolve them psychologically — replacing NASCAR with baseball. And trust me, Talladega Nights did it much better.