Cannes 2024 Review: Carson Lund’s “Eephus” Vividly Captures the Spirit of the Game

“Is there anything more beautiful than the sun setting on a fat man stealing second base?” someone asks late in “Eephus,” a rhetorical question to which if the answer is yes off-screen already, Carson Lund’s playful baseball comedy will surely delight you and if not, the writer/director can be pretty persuasive. Set in Douglas, Massachusetts where not even a local pizza vendor is aware of the regular game at Soldier’s Field, two amateur squads — Adler’s Paint and the Riverdogs — will play until the sun goes down, a generally hard out since the field has no lights and will never get them, recently designated for redevelopment to build a new school. Although none of the players are especially sentimental about taking the field for the last time, one would imagine it’s the highlight of their week, with some probably good enough to play in the minor league system if they didn’t have other obligations and others simply looking forward to beers after with the guys.

Such places to get together are rare in American life, and one need only to look at the motley uniforms for the Riverdogs, ranging in pinstripes, grey and blue that are likely a product of its players joining the team at different times throughout the years, to know it’s been a tradition that has had to find ways to endure against all odds. There’s even a question whether the game planned to be the finale will actually be played or if that’s already happened when the Riverdogs can only field eight players with the promise that their ninth will show up before his time in the batting order — it is an early test of the rules that have surely helped keep the game alive with a certain amount of discipline while the eventual compromise between the teams to play on is equally crucial. Still, “Eephus” unfolds strictly in the here and now as if you’ve stumbled across it on a lazy Saturday afternoon, and while you wouldn’t be entirely alone at Soldier’s Field, the men clearly play for themselves when only one player bothers to invite his family to the game and a few randos come and go as Franny, a longtime scorekeeper, sets up his folding chair behind home plate.

When the film’s title comes from the name of an obscure pitch, it can be expected that Lund’s love of the game runs deep, but “Eephus” is never arcane, thanks in part to the director’s other clear passion for observational filmmaking, tipped off by the voice of Frederick Wiseman on the radio as players pull up to the park. Both interests reward patient, methodical work and while part of the film’s enormous charm is watching middle-aged men seemingly unburden themselves of their history when taking the field to become their most innocent selves again, the chitchat in the dugout and arguments over missed calls all bear the stamp of hard-won experience, a result of subtle, sophisticated scripting by Lund, Michael Basta and Nate Fisher and some canny casting of an array of actors you simply know their entire lives from looking at them. (An appearance from Bill “Spaceman” Lee is particularly effective, not only for those who can remember the exploits of the irascible Red Sox starter or the fact that he’s hung on to play in independent leagues well into his seventies, but for anyone unfamiliar with him who could suspect all that simply from a glimpse at his weathered face.)

When the passage of time is a natural part of baseball, “Eephus” considers it in more profound terms, sidestepping the traditional markers of innings with interstitials offering updates of the position of the sun such as “Midday” and “Golden Hour,” accompanied by quotes from Branch Rickey and Babe Ruth that place the game in even grander continuums. A futile battle against the sunset would be potent enough as a metaphor on its own, but watching the two teams bat around questions of whether they should keep going as much as the ball becomes quite moving as more and more adjustments need to be made in order to play, finding novel solutions in some situations and more absurd contortions in others. Still, sometimes what can seem most trivial is what’s most worth fighting for in “Eephus,” which finds all kinds of diamonds in the rough.

“Eephus” will screen again at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Directors Fortnight on May 20th at 11:30 am at the Cinema Le Raimu and 2 pm at the Cinema Alexandre III.

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