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Curiously, two sports films released recently choose to preach about how difficult it is for a modern woman to create a professional identity. How do you figure 'em out? Last year it was girls just wanna have fun: this year they all seem to wanna work hard for the money. But more curiously, of these two movies, the one that succeeds is Sylvester, written by a relative unknown, with the hoariest of hackneyed plots (a girl and her horse), featuring an obscure sport (three-day eventing), while the one that fails—and fails utterly—has the right hotsy-totsy billboard title, The Slugger's Wife. Wife was written by the esteemed Neil Simon, who has accumulated almost as many hits as Pete Rose, and it is about our most treasured game, baseball. Alas, if Simon can make such a mess out of the national pastime, then hot dogs, moms and apple pies are unsafe.
Whether or not you like Simon's assembly-line comedies, his formula has been surefire. He deals as artfully as anyone ever has in stereotypes, essentially reworking variations on his crown jewel, the masterful The Odd Couple. In any Simonette, thrust together are the neat and the messy, the old and the young, the hip and the hidebound, the optimist and the pessimist, the man and the woman. Life is a succession of opposites, with the principal characters wisecracking their way through the agony of inevitably attracting.
In The Slugger's Wife, the slugger (Michael O'Keefe) is a romanticist, while his wife (Rebecca De Mornay) is a pragmatist. Unfortunately, neither character is believable. Nor, for that matter, is the story. Not one iota of the baseball rings true. If your game is stereotypes, get it right. The Slugger's Wife has it all wrong—the details, the tone, the game the fun—but then, I'm not sure that's important, because it is a comedy without laughs, a love story without love, a witless contrivance far worse than anything else Simon has done.
By contrast, Sylvester is a lovely little thing. Put this in the ad: Sylvester is this year's The Karate Kid. It was written by Carol Sobieski, and this time she got it right. You see, a few years ago Sobieski wrote another horse movie, Casey's Shadow, about a boy and a horse. Shadow wasn't so good. Now you know, Sobieski, it's girls that go with horses.
It helps that the director, Tim Hunter, found just the right pitch, as did all the principals, including the title character himself, a spirited white gelding. Others who contribute winning performances are Melissa Gilbert (late of Little House on the Prairie); the beguiling Richard Farnsworth, cast as a roguish old drunk; Michael Schoeffling, the love interest, who looks like a Matt Dillon with edges; and Constance Towers, who plays a crippled, filthy-rich horse owner.
In the leading role, Gilbert plays a tomboy named Charlie. Says Farnsworth, her stockyard boss, "Charlie's a hard dog to keep under a porch." Charlie is also an orphan. And, on top of that, she's "saving herself." But as cornball as all that sounds, gee, it's nice to see some virtuous pluck for a change. Besides, both Charlie the character and Gilbert the actress must have more going for them. Otherwise Farnsworth would have tucked the whole movie under his arm and stolen away into the night.
Farnsworth is a delight, the rare old actor who meshes easily with young 'uns. Most actors, when they find they're old and have to play opposite young people, grow self-conscious and act even more antique than they are, getting all raspy and cracker-barrelish, particularly in folksy movies like Sylvester. But Farnsworth avoids that trap, thank you. He just plays a man who happens to have a lot of years on him, instead of somebody they call Pops. It's refreshing.
Sylvester succeeds not only because it has such an endearing story, but also because the film does a good job of helping the uninitiated viewer appreciate the arcane demands of the equestrian exercises. It captures the essence of eventing; conversely, The Slugger's Wife misinterprets baseball and its charms.
And so, at the end, off go our ragtag band of West Texas rascals to the ritzy eventing trials in Lexington, Ky., where Charlie and Sylvester will face the blue bloods on their own bluegrass. I don't think you will be disappointed when this Cinderella pair fares far better in Lexington than underdogs traditionally do. As they say in eventing, Sylvester goes clean.