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Generally, you won't find a wig listed above the marquee of a movie, but if ESPN wanted to bill the true star of Hu$tle, a dark and mostly disappointing depiction of Pete Rose's gambling days as Reds manager, it would organize a conference call immediately with the wig used by Tom Sizemore, who portrays the all-time hits leader.
Hu$tle debuts Saturday (ESPN, 9 p.m.), and as my esteemed SI.com colleague Mark Bechtel wrote in these cyberpages last week, "instead of having Sizemore attempt to grow a moptop (or hiring Liam Gallagher), the producers outfitted the actor with something that bears only a passing resemblance to actual human hair."
Indeed, the terrifying toupee so overwhelms Sizemore's ham-handed performance that it's hard to tell where the hair stops and the plot begins. Hu$tle takes place between 1986 to 1989, beginning the year after Rose broke Ty Cobb's hits record. We quickly see a repugnant user of people, a degenerate gambler and womanizer, a man spiraling under his own gambling vices. And we end up caring not one iota.
The script (based loosely on the 1989 Dowd Report) never gives us more than a one-dimensional characterization of Rose. Sure, he's a louse, a Hit King of a louse, actually, but the only moment of humanity viewers are given is when manager Rose tells Buddy Bell that the Reds' third base job is his when he comes back from taking care of his sick daughter. For all of Rose's warts, and there are enough to fill a stadium, he always had an undeniable charisma and rogue charm about him. That's left out of Hu$tle.
This is ESPN's third original film following A Season on the Brink and the Junction Boys, both of which were better-than-average efforts as far as cable movie go. In Hu$tle, director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) has channeled his inner Soprano and spends much of his time on Rose's flunky Paul Janszen, who takes hero worshipping to a new level and wants only to be loved by his beloved No, 14. While Sizemore swings and misses on Rose, Dash Mihok (The Thin Red Line) is terrific as the pathetic Janszen, offering viewers the pathos of a starstruck guy who just wants to be Rose's pal. Viewers get to know Janszen's inner character far more than they do Rose's, which is why ESPN should have more accurately titled this The Paul Janszen Story.
While this is, as ESPN tells us at the beginning of the film, "a dramatization of actual events," some of the events are closer to science fiction. In the lone scene of the film featuring the late Marge Schott (eating dinner with Rose at a restaurant), the Reds owner comes off stately and resolute, a combination of Golda Mier and Carly Fiorina. This from the woman who rubbed her dog's hair on players to help them win the 1990 World Series.
The promotion for the film has been intense. Calls to ESPN's main number in Bristol Thursday offered a taped message from Bogdanovich, hawking the movie, before an operator picked up. ESPN Classic will air a live special afterward called Hu$tle: The Rose Debate in which host Jeremy Schapp will channel his inner Larry King by taking phone calls about Rose's legacy. By coincidence or not, ESPN is airing a series on gambling on sports this week on SportsCenter.
But we'll give Hu$tle this: The film does pick up steam near its conclusion and ending the film with footage from Rose's interview this January with ABC's Charlie Gibson is powerful stuff. Hu$tle isn't a total failure. But if ESPN wants to play in the big leagues of HBO and TNT when it comes to moviemaking, it needs to do better than this. It's next original movie is 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story, scheduled for December with Barry Pepper as the late NASCAR king. I happened to spend a day on the North Carolina set of the film last spring as part of a story on the making of the movie and I can promise you at least one thing about Pepper: His hair fits the part.
Here are two programs you'll be talking about around the cooler come next week:
September 25, 10:15 p.m., HBO Boxing, Roy Jones (49-2, 38KOs) vs. Glen Johnson (40-9-2, 27KOs)
Jones should make quick work of Johnson, but it will be interesting to see how he looks after losing his lightweight title to Antonio Tarver in a stunning second-round knockout last May. As an added bonus, HBO will start the broadcast with a replay of Bernard Hopkins' ninth-round knockout of Oscar De La Hoya.
September 27, 9 p.m., ABC, Cowboys vs. Redskins
Get out out your Star Wars t-shirt (we're talking about the Strategic Defense Initiative championed by Ronald Reagan as opposed to the George Lucas cash machine) as Monday Night Football presents I Love the '80s. It's an old-school matchup between Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs. Parcells is 11-6 in the head-to-head between the coaches.