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Off the Black

Trevor Morgan and Nick Nolte engage in some male bonding.

Movie actors of Nick Noltes clout (and gender) get to decide right down to the last wrinkle and half-ounce of muscle or flab how they want to age on screen. Nolte, weary and grizzled even in his youth, seems to have been prepping for his twilight days since 1976, when he was 35.

That was the year the gruff-voiced, prematurely weathered Nebraska native and college football stud slouched toward stardom in the soap miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man playing the poor man, naturally. From there, the physical and psychic poundings of Vietnam (Wholl Stop the Rain) and the pro-ball gridiron (North Dallas Forty) swiftly supplied the young actor with the limp, the growl and the short fuse he needed to portray what would become his characteristic theme: the merciless ravages of experience upon the male body and spirit. Now, at 65, he needs only his age and his integrity to achieve hunched realism rather than aerobicized, plasticized uplift.

Near the end of Off the Black, a disarmingly droll and insightful indie in which Nolte plays a high-school baseball umpire and failed dad, theres a short scene of his character, Ray Cook, straining once more to wriggle his abundant girth into the umps uniform. Nolte, never to be mistaken for Heath Ledger, dares to appear naked in this scene, and it doesnt look as though theres a single stretch of toned tissue on his entire body which is no measure of the shape hes in as an actor. Where most sexagenarian stars Harrison Ford (64), Michael Douglas (62) and Sylvester Stallone (60) among them will do anything to show they can still crack the whip or get it up or at least get in the ring for one more round, Nolte is a lot more interested in showing that he cant, that the battered body (or mind) simply wont allow it. If Rocky Balboa is an absurdist fantasy of senior-age machismo, Off the Black comes infinitely closer to the reality of exhausted masculinity. Its a ninth-inning movie wherein the umps only triumph is another brutally honest call.

The first of these unpopular decisions ball four is issued, in Noltes patented rasp, at the start of the film. The crestfallen pitcher is Dave (Trevor Morgan), a sad-eyed, shaggy-haired seventeen-year-old in a small industrial town who comes to the crotchety umps house at night with two friends, some toilet paper and a brick. Old Ray, whose fridge tellingly sports a yellow Post-it note that reads 3 beer limit, pulls a gun on the fleeing trios straggling member, peels off the kids ski mask to discover a flipped-out Dave, and seizes an opportunity to put the young pitcher to work as an indentured servant. Ray toys with young Dave like a cat swatting a mouse, forcing him to do mundane physical labor as penance for trespassing and vandalism. But the relationship expands to include the occasional fishing excursion and adventure in over-the-limit brewsky-swilling. And it proves mutually beneficial, since Daves hollowed-out dad (Timothy Hutton) is even a more strong-and-silent type than Ray, and Dave could use a mentor, if not a role model. He even agrees to attend Rays forty-year high school reunion, posing as his son in order for the ump to look, or perhaps feel, accomplished.

This old-lion-bonds-with-young-buck material sounds a mite facile and formulaic in description, but Off the Black, written and directed by James Ponsoldt, reveals its relevant details slowly and cautiously as men of any age generally do. At a campfire chat, the older guy allows that he flew planes over Vietnam in herbicide-spray missions. Later, he offers advice that uncovers his underlying sensitivity: Looking at fauna isnt just for sissies, you know? As in Affliction, another Nolte-driven study of masculinity, the awkwardness of the mens attempts at emotional expression appears inherited. What did he do? Ray asks Dave, referring to his old man. Nothing is the aptly clipped reply. For his part, Ray is doubly afflicted: Neither his long-estranged son nor his Alzheimers-suffering dad (Michael Higgins) is able to swing at the umps humorously desperate conversational pitches.

Off the Black belongs on the shelf beside male portraits Spring Forward and Old Joy; its not as deep or resonant as those two, but, despite extraneous supporting characters (i.e., women), its likewise concerned with lamenting and, dare we say, expanding the limitations of mens communication skills. Here both umpire and actor call em as they see em.


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