Over/Under: ‘Field of Dreams’ vs. ‘Sugar’

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I’m not any sort of sports guy at all. Corner me in a bar and try to talk to me about last night’s big game and I’m going to stare back at you blankly and stupidly. Invite me to your Super Bowl party and I’m going to politely decline for fear of dying of boredom. But even I understand the appeal of baseball: the lazy pace, the fresh-cut grass, the hot dogs and peanuts, the crack of the bat. Hollywood has a long tradition of movies that have tapped into this seemingly universal love, but ever since it was released, the Kevin Costner-starring Field of Dreams has been considered by most to be the king of the mountain.

And while pretty much everyone has seen Field of Dreams at some point in their lives, or at least understands that it’s the source of the, “If you build it, they will come,” quote, almost no one I know has ever seen Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 2008 film Sugar. It got a brief release in New York and L.A., and then was shunted off to DVD without playing for anyone else. That’s a shame, because this tale about a young Dominican prospect trying to improve his station in the world by making it to the majors is my favorite film about the game.

What do they have in common?

In addition to being movies about the sport of baseball, both Field of Dreams and Sugar are about people who are chasing unlikely dreams. In Field of Dreams, Costner’s Ray is building a baseball diamond in the middle of a corn field and chasing down legendary, reclusive writers. In Sugar, Miguel “Sugar” Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is trying to work his way up from a baseball academy in his home country, to the minor leagues, and then the majors in the United States, all in order to pull his family out of poverty.

Both of these movies touch on the dark side of the dream as well. Ray is building his baseball field for people with regrets, those that had a baseball related dream that eventually didn’t work out, people who need a second chance. Sugar looks at what happens when the dream fails. Where do you go after you put all of your eggs into a baseball dream basket and then all of that evaporates?

Why is Field of Dreams overrated?

On one hand I get why Field of Dreams is beloved by so many people. It’s quite the heartstring-tugger. But on the other hand, I’m kind of baffled by the universal acclaim this movie gets, because it’s so dang slow and boring. And yeah, I get that the sentiment here is warm and fuzzy…to a point. But after a while it gets so schmaltzy and nostalgic that I can’t imagine having any reaction to it other than feeling smothered and rolling your eyes. This script is so blunt. At every turn a character is explaining to you exactly what they’re thinking and telling you how you’re supposed to feel about it. I don’t need to hear Ray’s wife say, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen you smile while talking about your dad,” you’ve been pounding it into my head that everything is about his daddy issues for the past half hour. Even though I almost fell asleep listening to Costner ramble on about old baseball players and his childhood, I was paying attention.

This story is so abstract and weird that I don’t understand how I’m supposed to relate to it either. What are the rules of what’s happening here? The ghosts can come out of corn heaven, but only to be on the baseball field. If they step off the field they turn into their old selves, but are still ghosts, and then they can’t play baseball. What? Gandalf being able to summon giant owls to fix any problem makes more sense. Watching this movie is like having a crazy dream where locations and faces keep morphing; it makes no damn sense. And yet none of the characters are freaked out, or react to it in any way. What’s Ray’s reaction to finding out nobody else can see these players out on his field? He sheepishly grins and says, “This is really interesting.” Are you serious? How about, “What the fuck? Holy shit!”?  What is or isn’t possible in this universe? Am I the only one who gives a shit about the goddamn rules?

Apparently so, because there is no danger, conflict, or stakes in this story whatsoever. Ray and his family are close to losing their house and their livelihood throughout the course of this entire film, and nobody ever seems to be remotely concerned about it. Their faith in baseball playing ghosts is so absolute that they just face financial ruin with a wink and a knowing smile. This is pure escapism with no tether to reality. And that’s fine if you’re giving me lightsabers and buxom princesses, but even then I need some danger and drama along with the escapism; not just smiling complacency. Watching Field of Dreams is like watching a Stepford movie.

Why is Sugar underpraised?

Towards the end of Field of Dreams we’re introduced to the doctor character when he was a young man. He’s hitchhiking from town to town, trying to get on the local baseball teams, and hopefully making his way in the world. That was an interesting sounding story that I wanted to watch, and Sugar basically is that story. This is a story about real life, real struggle, and it has life and death stakes. We get a look at the real world of trying to make it in baseball; a life where you’re constantly being evaluated, where the only friends you have are the people you’re competing with for spots in the majors, and where the economic future of your entire family is riding on whether you succeed or not.

There’s no schmaltz here, no easy sentimentality. We’re looking at the American Dream in the context of the American Pastime, but we’re seeing it all through an outsider’s lens. It’s not coming from the perspective of someone on the other side of the dream. Dreams should involve struggle and uncertainty. For these prospective players coming from poorer countries, baseball represents the only way they can think of to improve their lives. This is their make or break moment, and that’s such an immediate and affecting focus for a story that I can’t see how a hokey love letter to how important baseball is to the American identity can compete. Watching Sugar wide-eyed and amazed at coming across a professional quality jersey for the first time does more for me to cultivate a love of baseball than an hour of listening to Field of Dreams’ sweeping, manipulative score.

This movie is funny too. Even if baseball isn’t your bag, Sugar is going to keep your attention because it keeps you laughing all the way through. It’s got a bunch of culture shock/fish out of water humor up its sleeve once Sugar gets to America. It manages to do a bunch of lost in translation jokes that lampoon the cultural divide between Middle America and the Dominican Republic and that show how frustrating trying to assimilate yourself into another culture where it’s hard for you to communicate can be; but it manages to do it without ever being goofy or insulting. Okay, so maybe it’s a little insulting to old people, but nobody likes them. Oh, and Sugar has the funniest French toast joke this side of The 40 Year Old Virgin.

Evening the odds.

Most of the characters in Field of Dreams started out doing what they do just because they love the game of baseball, but over time they lost sight of the purity of the game and became consumed by their regrets. Ray’s field gives them a place where they can come back and just enjoy the game. It’s a simple lesson that the movie needlessly jumps through a lot of hoops to get to and paints with more sentimental schmaltz than it needs to. There is real magic in the game of baseball already, there’s no need to add a bunch of mystical hocus pocus to get that across. And there’s no need to overstate things by insinuating that a game of catch with your dad can erase a lifetime of regrets. Such melodramatic nonsense just smothers the inherent truth in your story. Sugar reaches the same conclusion. He gets to a point where he finds his identity and finds a place to belong when he’s just playing the game for the sake of the game, with no other expectations. But the movie still manages to tell a story about real people with real problems. There’s no reason to add myth to something that’s already mythic enough. Both of these movies look at what happens when the dream fails, but only one ever gets to reality.

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Weaned on the genre films of the 80s. Reared by the independent movement of the 90s. Earned a BA for writing stuff in the 00s. Reviews current releases at templeofreviews.com

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