Baseball season, at last. Miguel “Sugar” Santos, protagonist of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, is the ideal hero for a modern hard-times baseball movie — a hopeful from the Dominican Republic whose might-have-been Major League career is less important than his personal experiences in the Bigs, in this case meaning the whole United States.
Sugar, a right-handed pitcher from the baseball hotbed of San Pedro de Macorís, is playing for the “baseball academy” farm team of the fictional Kansas City Knights when the call comes. They want to see his knuckle curve at spring training in Phoenix. Suddenly he’s got a ticket to the show. His head is swimming as he boards the plane. In between language drills and working on his sweet knuckle curve, the sincere, good-natured Sugar (played by nonactor Algenis Perez Soto) begins to make his way in the States. First order of business: learning to order something other than “French toast” at a restaurant.
He gets sent straight to Iowa League A ball and takes a room with a congenial host family, Mr. and Mrs. Higgins (Richard Bull and Ann Whitney), in their farmhouse. Sugar and his beisbolero teammates hang out at Big Muddy’s nightclub, experience homegrown yanqui prejudice, and go to church. He discovers blonds. At first, Sugar mystifies batters but then he starts to lose his stuff, and the little white pills enter his life.
Filmmakers Boden and Fleck, creators of the teacher-with-a-drug-habit drama Half Nelson, obviously have a soft spot for the underdog. Sugar is one of thousands of poor Dominican kids hoping to ride baseball to riches in the United States, and, naturally, for every José Rijo (the former Oakland A’s pitcher served as a consultant on the film and plays the role of Alvarez, director of the baseball academy), there are planeloads of guys who never make it.
Sugar takes the time to follow one of them all the way, and discovers a different Sugar — an uncomplicated man who loves making furniture — beneath the coddled baseball prodigy. In the burgeoning subgenre of “border crossing” movies, Sugar stacks up favorably against The Visitor, The Betrayal, Frozen River, etc., as a portrait of America, the land of endless possibilities — just be sure to watch your step.
Sugar meets some interesting people on his journey. Teammates Jorge (Rayniel Rufino) and Brad (Andre Holland) offer advice, and second baseman Brad, a Stanford grad, hips him to the great Roberto Clemente. Then there’s Osvaldo, the sympathetic Nuyorican woodshop owner (veteran character actor Jaime Tirelli), with his story of Vic Power, the magical first baseman from Puerto Rico who had his best years for the Philadelphia A’s and the Indians in the 1950s and 1960s. We begin to get the feeling that the United States of Baseball is somehow grander and more generous than the United States of America, or at least the starting point for a world culture that has proved more durable and inspiring than anyone could have imagined. Sugar celebrates that culture realistically and beautifully.
It has been pointed out that Paul Dano always looks as if he’s on the verge of bursting into tears. Zooey Deschanel, on the other hand, seems destined to make boys cry. They’re a match made in quirky little moviemakers’ heaven, which is one reason why Gigantic occasionally rises above its limitations. The operative word is “occasionally.”
Dano plays Brian Weathersby, a bedding salesman who has the knack of talking Manhattanites into shelling out $14,000 for a Swedish mattress yet can’t get much else going for himself. Brian is haunted — I believe that’s the word — by a nameless nemesis, a red-bearded evil gnome listed in the credits as “Homeless Guy” and played by actor Zach Galifianakis, who pops up out of nowhere to beat, shoot, and otherwise inconvenience the hapless Brian.
One day a fat rich man named Al Lolly (John Goodman) comes into Brian’s showroom, buys one of the expensive mattresses for his bad back, then sends his daughter, Harriet, aka Happy (Deschanel), to finalize the sale. This business deal leads Brian into one of those coming-of-age romances that have been the stock and trade of slender movie narratives since the dawn of time. He and Happy happily screw, then rather unhappily negotiate their next moves while dealing with their predictably eccentric families — Happy with her imperious, art-collecting dad, who rides around New York City in the back of an SUV, lying supine; Brian with his old-fashioned folks (Jane Alexander and Ed Asner) and his two older brothers. One of the brothers (Ian Roberts) is an oilman who enjoys treating his clients to group hand-jobs administered by a team of masseuses.
First-time director Matt Aselton, who wrote the screenplay with Adam Nagata, plays the changes in this scenario as if The Royal Tenenbaums had never been invented — a useful strategy for a fledgling maker of oddball urban comedies. The rest of us, however, can’t help recognizing the territory. We’ve been here before, often. And so it’s up to Dano, so strange as the demented preacher kid in There Will Be Blood, to redirect his sense of menace to the pathetic figure of Brian. It doesn’t exactly happen that way, despite the vampirish vulnerability of Deschanel’s Happy — a vulnerability we have a hard time believing. Long before Gigantic ends, we’re thinking about that Swedish mattress.
Meanwhile, in 1930s France, the colorful characters of Paris 36 (French title: Faubourg 36) are singing and dancing their way through a chronicle of working-class political turmoil. The focal point is the suddenly defunct Chansonia Theatre, where three men — technician Milou (Clovis Cornillac), stagehand Pigoil (Gérard Jugnot), and sleazy artist Jacky (Kad Merad) — decide to take over the failed music hall and turn it into a combination nightclub and workers’ collective.
This they do, with twists and turns provided mostly by the sausage-fingered local gangster (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), plus many, many musical production numbers, too many to digest. In fact, director Christophe Barratier’s meticulous re-creation of an era may prove impenetrable to anyone not familiar with France’s history of communist-versus-fascist struggles. Paris 36 is destined to be one of the season’s most energetic white elephants.