The Catcher Was A Spy review

The Catcher Was A Spy was one of our most anticipated movies of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, so it brings me absolutely no joy to report that it ranks as my most disappointing movie of the year so far. It’s hard to fathom that such an intriguing true-life story of a professional baseball player-turned-spy in World War II could result in such a sleepy little movie, but even the presence of star Paul Rudd and a supporting cast of veteran character actors like Paul Giamatti, Hiroyuki Sanada, Guy Pearce, Tom Wilkinson, and Jeff Daniels isn’t enough to salvage this lifeless spy drama.

Major League catcher Moe Berg had degrees from Princeton University and Columbia Law School, spoke nine languages, and was exceedingly good at keeping secrets. During World War II, when the U.S. military realized that the Germans had employed physicist Werner Heisenberg to develop the first nuclear bomb, Berg was assigned to kill Heisenberg in order to stop him from completing that task. Pretty interesting, huh?

Sadly, this film stumbles in its telling from its opening moments, and one problem quickly rises above the rest: Paul Rudd is heinously miscast in this role. The film is set in the ’40s and is littered with images straight out of film noir: shadowy city streets, silhouettes of guys wearing trench coats and fedoras, and glitzy black tie parties. But while guys like Bogart and Mitchum could slip into that setting without blinking an eye, Rudd immediately pulled me out of the film’s world. He’s too modern and has too much history with comedic roles for me to take him seriously here, and even though it feels like he’s giving it his all, I couldn’t help but feel as if he was always just seconds away from breaking the fourth wall and winking at the camera. Somebody like Jon Hamm could be convincing wearing these clothes, tough-talking a guy, and beating the shit out of him in a wet alleyway, but Rudd simply isn’t convincing in that mold. It’s a classic “square peg in round hole” scenario.

But even if you can mentally clear that significant hurdle, the rest of the film doesn’t do Rudd any favors. 71-year-old director Ben Lewin was at Sundance a few years ago with an enjoyable movie called The Sessions that won the Audience Award, but he’s hopelessly out of his depth as this movie zig-zags around the globe and tries to recount the details of Berg’s classified mission. It’s unfortunate, because this is one of those projects that seems like everyone’s heart was in the right place, but there’s just no energy to it. It’s a lot of guys sitting around talking (without saying much of note), broken up by an extended battle sequence in the middle. The dialogue, the long battle scene, the spy elements, a few scenes of Rudd and company playing baseball…they’re all fine, but never anything more. The movie just sits there, lethargically going through the motions.

As soon as I decided I didn’t like Rudd in this role (which happened in the first five minutes), my hopes shifted to the other actors in the cast. But they’re all just…fine. It’s a group of top-tier actors doing adequate work. The only brief respite from the mundane comes in the form of a mental game of chess; one character approaches another at a chess board, and after a quick look at the already-in-progress game, the first man wipes all the pieces off the board. But in that short time, they both managed to commit the whole board to memory, and continue playing the game verbally as a method of feeling each other out. Aside from Howard Shore‘s solid score, it’s a rare bright spot in a movie that’s sorely lacking illumination. (Metaphorically, of course – there’s actually a nice bit of lighting work in the creation of a hazy yellow Zurich street at night, if you’re looking for literal illumination. At a certain point in this movie, you start taking anything you can get.)

Overall, The Catcher Was A Spy is a by-the-numbers treatment of an extraordinary story. The real Moe Berg would be much better served by a documentary about his exploits instead of a flat and tranquil interpretation that is guaranteed to put a million dads to sleep on recliners across the country when it hits cable.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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