(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Billy Corben
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)
Who knew baseball could be so entertaining? America’s two favorite past times—baseball and crime—join forces in a Billy Corben’s hilarious and eye-opening documentary Screwball. This madcap doc is one of the hidden gems in the TIFF Docs line-up this year. Screwball is a truly original home run in documentary storytelling. This true crime farce interviews a peanut gallery of stupid criminals as Corben dives into the recent scandal of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. The film gives new meaning to the USA’s “three strikes rule” as Corben recounts the all-American tradition of lying, cheating, and stealing to become number one.
The talking heads chorus of baseball buffoons includes Anthony Bosch, a shady self-certified doctor who is the only physician sketchier than Doctor Nick from The Simpson’s. The “doctor” proudly explains to Corben who he ran a natural rejuvenation project (né doping clinic) out of his Miami condo and conned his way to notoriety with some questionable credentials from a medical college in Belize, whose certification doesn’t hold up in the USA. Bosch loves the sound of his own voice more than Donald Trump does, and this guy doesn’t hold anything back as he verbosely boasts about his criminal behavior to Corben in some laugh-a-minute interviews. What a great character.
Despite his newfound notoriety, Bosch doesn’t quite grasp what deep shit he’s in as he gives Corben a detailed play by play when most crooks would plead the Fifth Amendment. Baseball, like America, thrives on big egos and Bosch doesn’t want his fifteen minutes of fame to be a missed opportunity. After all, he’s the “doctor” whose claim to fame is the secret recipe that put baseball players Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez at the top of their games. The film recounts the various parties who played a hand either in screwing Major League Baseball as part of Bosch’s numbskull operation or in screwing over Bosch to blow the whistle on his operation. One of the few interviewee who seems remotely intelligent is Miami New Times journalist Tim Elfrink as he dryly comments on the story that grew as jaded parties gave him the scoop on Bosch’s game. Everyone is hilariously frank, especially when commenting on the follies of the film’s other participants.
Screwball embraces the farcical element of this loony drug ring by complementing the talking heads interviews with comedic re-enactments. However, the actors in these episodes aren’t played by grown men. Child actors play them and bring to Screwball pint-sized bodies to match the juvenile intelligence of the subjects. The results are hilarious as the little pipsqueaks lip-sync the interviews without much effort to match the beat.
The conceit could have backfired spectacularly but it works. The kids have a lot of fun re-enacting baseball’s greatest scandal in ill-fitting costumes, bad wigs, and exaggerated pantomimes. The result highlights the droll absurdity of these men who behave like children. Corben undercuts the authority the men try to inject into their interviews, which generally veer towards verbose showboating. A-Rod’s characterization is especially funny as the tyke who plays the baseball star spends most of his screen time kissing his reflection in the mirror or admiring the bizarre portrait of himself as a centaur that hangs in his posh, self-aware home.
The doc also uses this humour to interrogate the absurdity of an organization that allows such systemic corruption to run rampant for so long. Screwball revisits cornerstone moments in baseball history, like the friendly rivalry between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as they tried to set a new record for home runs. McGwire, who ultimately won the race, later confessed to steroid use and crushed countless fans who found their love for baseball rekindled by his astonishing hitting streak. Corben smartly situates Bosch’s scandal within a longer history of corruption and dishonesty within the Major League. In a nation and industry that celebrates petty men as false idols, Screwball humorously captures the scale and silliness of the corruption that drives America’s favorite game.