Monday, March 25, 2019

Screwball: MLB’s Doping Dopes

It was like the World Series of criminal stupidity. Since it largely unfolded in South Florida, this scandal was fully stocked with colorful characters. There were not a lot of good guys, but arguably the worst of the worst was Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez. Yankee fans could have told you that. The 2013 Major League Baseball doping scandal gets an irreverent but still damning treatment in Billy Corben’s Screwball, which opens this Friday in New York and Miami.

The most of the events in Screwball transpired after the Balco doping media frenzy, so nobody involved can plead ignorance. The dopers knew they were doping and the consequences they were risking. However, Tony Bosch thought he had a system that could avoid detection while still giving performance enhancing benefits through strategic mini-dosing. Rather inconveniently, the jig was almost up when his star client, Manny Ramirez, went off the regimen and tested positive. However, that perversely led an even bigger client to Bosch’s doorstep: A-Rod.

Suddenly, Bosch’s Biogenesis was awash in clients from the professional, college, and most disturbingly, prep levels. He even experimented with franchising Biogenesis’s services through a chain of South Florida tanning salons owned by a shady pair of brothers. That was how Bosch met Porter Fischer, a tanning meathead who would become an unlikely but important witness against nearly everyone involved, through sheer dumb luck.

Screwball is a compulsively watchable, highly entertaining true crime doc, but viewers should be warned. They could get headaches from all the forehead slapping and face-palming it inspires. Sure, Corben exposes plenty of greed and corruption, but most of the time “stupidity” is the word that best defines the actions of the primary figures.

Corben has an affinity for documenting the intersection of illicit drugs and pop culture (in films like Limelight and Square Grouper), so the baseball doping scandals are a logical subject for him to explore. In this case, he makes each twist and turn clear and easy to follow. Each connection is fully established, so there really aren’t any unsubstantiated claims left hanging by the time the film ends.

However, Corben makes an aesthetic choice that will be divisive (and most likely distracting), by staging his dramatic recreations with child actors, sort of making Screwball a black sheep cousin to Bugsy Malone. It certainly distinguishes the film from the pack, but the novelty value yields drastically diminishing returns. Frankly, Corben probably would have been better off employing goofy animation instead.

Corben also needlessly alienates potential viewer by taking a cheap shot at Pres. George W. Bush, who was out of office by the time most of the events of the film took place. If you want to talk presidential politics and steroids, you could better ask why Obama’s Justice Department so conspicuously let Lance Armstrong off the hook. Still, most Yankee fans will appreciate seeing A-Rod and Ramirez (a longtime Red Sox) get put under a searing microscope. One thing is for sure, the film is never boring. Recommended for bitter Yankee fans and viewers of Real Sports and the 30 for 30 series, Screwball opens this Friday (3/29) in New York at the Cinema Village and in Miami at the Tower Theater.