Once upon a time, there was a little boy who dreamed of being a major league baseball player…
Sadly, this little boy had no baseball skills whatsoever, and the fairy tale allure of America’s pastime disintegrated into a cocaine-fueled frenzy of steroids, crime, and jail time. Screwball is the zany story of Tony Bosch, a disgraced Florida doctor who began with dreams of athletic conquest and ended up in a squalid nightclub bathroom injecting steroids into Yankees all star Alex Rodriguez.
With the help of some inspired reenactments featuring child actors, director Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) creates something akin to an extended Scorsese riff, with ambitious doofuses hatching convoluted plots that even an amateur screenwriter would reject as too unbelievable. Corben has plenty of snarky commentary on baseball, fraud, and tanning salon shenanigans, but he’s also pointing a bony finger at America’s obsession with fame (or infamy). More specifically, Screwball warns that the desperate struggle for relevance often leads grown men to behave like petulant children.
It may come as a shock to anyone under the age of 40 that Major League Baseball was once the most popular sports entity in the United States. Millions of youngsters clogged baseball diamonds around the country, each pretending to be their favorite baseball hero as they crushed the improbable home run that won the World Series. In its quest to compete with the ungodly speed, size, and strength of emerging competitors (i.e. the National Football League), MLB has tacitly encouraged cheating for the last 25 years. Scandals surrounding performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) such as Human Growth Hormone have forever tainted the image of baseball, calling into question every super-human accolade of our once infallible heroes.
Ironically, Bosch’s hero was Pete Rose, the disgraced all-time hits leader who was banned from MLB for gambling on baseball games in the 1980s. However, unlike Rose (dubbed “Charlie Hustle” for his almost obnoxious enthusiasm for the game), Bosch was never above taking a shortcut to reach first base. Unable to gain admission into an American medical school, Bosch enrolled in the Central America Health Sciences University in Belize and received his medical degree in just over 3 years.
That his schooling was only slightly more rigorous than opening a cereal box didn’t hinder Bosch’s ambition. He started a company called Biogenesis, which promised clients that his micro-dosing philosophy of PEDs could give them the competitive and professional advantage they needed to succeed. Athletes flocked to Bosch, from high schoolers looking for college baseball scholarships to MLB stars like Manny Ramirez and A-Rod looking to keep their edge. It was a scheme that was doomed to fail, but no one could have predicted just how spectacularly it would unravel.
Told straight, Screwball might be the stuff of an exhaustively dry Ken Burns documentary or, at best, a fine installment of 30 for 30. Luckily, Corben recognizes the absurdity of his story and its cast of deeply-flawed but generally harmless characters. His decision to reenact events using kids is not only a nod to the childhood fantasy of baseball, but also the infantile behavior of Bosch, A-Rod, and the brass at MLB. It’s also a brilliant visual gag that never gets old, with youngsters lip-synching to the commentary of their real-life adult counterparts. It’s like a great episode of Drunk History, only the characters are drunk on greed instead of alcohol.
Corben’s directorial style keeps the pacing propulsive and entertaining. Screwball feels like a farce spinning toward its chaotic conclusion, with the absurdist echoes of frenetic Scorsese thrillers adding a delicious layer of paranoia. Bosch himself references Goodfellas as he feels the DEA’s surveillance net ensnaring him, and it’s clear he fancies himself a Jordan Belfort-esque playboy from The Wolf of Wall Street. Although, in Bosch’s case, it’s more like “The Jackal of Dade County.”
One might argue this breakneck pacing is a bit too breezy at times. We’re introduced in rapid succession to a large cast of characters, including journalists, investigators, and criminal cohorts. The result is sometimes overwhelming for the audience. Even Corben seems to struggle to keep it straight, as key players disappear for long stretches and new, important characters suddenly appear with little setup.
It would also be nice to slow down and actually learn what makes these lunkheads tick. Bosch, in particular, remains tantalizingly out of reach as a fully realized three-dimensional character. We understand his professional ambition and his penchant for playing the lovable scamp, but he feels just as emotionally allusive at the end of Screwball as he does at the beginning.
Still, Screwball is the type of irresistible “stranger than fiction” tale designed to entertain more than enlighten. Bosch, his criminal conspirators, A-Rod, and even MLB are all hapless pawns in a multi-billion dollar game designed to maximize fame and profit… and that game has nothing to do with baseball. Corben hilariously observes our childish dreams of youth morphing into the childish dreams of adulthood. The American pastime, indeed.