Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 15, 2005)
Almost two decades after his retirement, former ballplayer Pete Rose remains a hot topic. While his feats on the playing field remain uncontested and impressive. With a record 4256 hits and an all-out style that brought the nickname “Charlie Hustle”, Rose was always a fan favorite.
That started to change in the late Eighties when the public learned of Rose’s gambling problems. He became a player/manager a couple of years before he retired in 1986 and he continued as manager of the Cincinnati Reds until 1989. Apparently Rose bet on almost anything he could. Horses, football, boxing - all of those would be fine with the powers-that-be at the Major League, but rumors abounded that Rose had gone a step further and bet on baseball. Ever since the ”Black Sox” scandal of 1919, gambling on baseball was the sport’s cardinal sin because it potentially impacted on the integrity of the games. If a player was found to have done so, one punishment resulted: permanent banishment from baseball.
In the midst of accusations, Rose refused to confess his sins. Instead, he worked out a voluntary expulsion from the game in exchange for silence. If he left on his own, the League wouldn’t formally reveal their findings.
Rose’s actions become the focus of a 2004 ESPN feature film called Hu$tle. In it, Tom Sizemore plays Rose as his story picks up October 1986, right at the end of Rose’s playing days. Rose meets Paul Janszen (Dash Mihok) for the first time and quickly befriends the young man. We get to know the kid along with body-builder Tommy Gioiosa (Paul Fauteux) who snorts coke and shoots steroids in his ass.
Janszen becomes Rose’s assistant and accompanies Pete to a convention appearance in New Jersey. He then becomes Rose’s constant companion and we see Pete’s betting excursions. These start with basketball and horses, and he gradually involves Paul as his go-between to handle the gambling grunt work for Rose.
As the 1987 baseball season progresses, Rose finds himself on the end of a losing streak, which puts him in a tight monetary bind. Actually, this mostly affects middleman Paul, since he’s the one who technically owes the money. This leads the bookies to put pressure on Rose to bet on baseball so they can earn some of the cash he’s lost. Rose agrees and quickly starts to gamble on his own squad as well.
A habitual liar, Pete tries to hide his activities, but team members start to become suspicious. Paul also runs into problems since he’s on the stick for Pete’s debts, though he doesn’t believe that Rose is using him. Matters intensify when Rose talks of throwing games to win bets. The movie follows the Rose/Janszen relationship as well as Pete’s deepening problem with both gambling and various authorities.
Actually, Hu$tle spends a lot of time with Janszen’s point of view. Perhaps the filmmakers thought he’d give the audience a better entry point and we’d identify more with a good-hearted schlub caught up in a hero’s lies than in the legend himself. That’s a sensible thought, but it doesn’t work.
The main problem is that we really don’t care about Janszen. We see how his involvement with Rose leads to his downfall but we don’t get a feel for the Janszen character. He’s little more than a naïve patsy, especially in the goofy way Mihok plays him. His story comes across in such a predictable and trite manner that we never develop any investment in Janszen, and his fate doesn’t intrigue us. The movie bizarrely decides to focus on Janszen almost exclusively during its second half, and this just bores us.
That leaves Rose as a minor subject of interest, but that’s tough when he eventually develops into a supporting role. He gets a very one-dimensional portrayal and comes across as nothing more than a lying, cheating jerk who cares about no one other than himself. He uses friends and family to his own ends and never displays any concern about this. I don’t doubt that Rose is a self-serving prick, but the movie could have done something to show why people liked him and were loyal to him.
The movie never does so. Sizemore’s performance doesn’t help. He gets down Rose’s shambling walk but doesn’t do anything else to accurately embody the baseball legend. His Rose lacks any lightness or charm. Instead, he’s intense to the point of almost seeming psychopathic. Even when scenes try to warm up the character, he comes across as nearly demonic. Sizemore’s insanely bad wigs make matters worse. Yeah, Pete always had crummy haircuts, but at least they looked like his real hair!
I also think the story engages in too much cheesy melodrama too much of the time. A lot of it comes across like something you’d see on Lifetime. Poor Paul gets trapped in a bad relationship with evil, manipulative Pete and has to find the courage to pull himself out of this hole. That’s not the focus we want from a story about Rose. Frankly, who gives a rat’s ass about Janszen’s side? I sure don’t, and that emphasis makes the film drag badly.
Honestly, the package feels like it all came with the real Janszen’s approval. It does exceedingly little to cast him in a bad light. Even when he deals steroids, he comes across like a victim with no choice in the matter. The movie certainly tries hard to paint him as the innocent pawn of nasty ol’ Pete and totally ignores any personal responsibility he should bear.
It’s a sickeningly one-dimensional portrayal, especially since it slants things so far toward the Janszen character. No, I don’t want to see a film that makes excuses for Rose, but I’d like a little more balance. Hu$tle often feels like a vendetta as it viciously attacks Rose.
The inclusion of Pete’s 2004 admission that he bet on baseball doesn’t help. While this could appear simply to add a capper on the story, instead it feels cruel and mean-spirited, kind of a smug “I told you so” moment. Actually, the movie almost attempts some sympathy for Rose in a few minutes that precede this ending, but the real-life clip of Pete totally erases those.
Ultimately, Hu$tle fails not just because of its one-sided nature or its nasty attitude. It’s also simply not a well-made movie. It meanders around without much focus, and it zips through the investigations like it has to catch a train. Those should be the most compelling moments, not the pointless shots of a soul-searching sap. Clearly there’s a strong story behind Hu$tle, as Rose’s downfall is something that could become a real grabber. Unfortunately, Hu$tle is a dud.