A League of His Own

Acting isn't just for sissies: Nick Nolte in 'Off the Black'

Acting isn't just for sissies: Nick Nolte in 'Off the Black'

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

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 (Who'll 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, there's a short scene of his character Ray Cook straining once more to wriggle his abundant girth into the ump's uniform. Nolte, never to be mistaken for Heath Ledger, dares to appear naked in this scene, and it doesn't look as though there's a single stretch of toned tissue on his entire body—which is no small measure of the shape he's 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 can't, that the battered body (or mind) simply won't allow it. If Rocky Balboa (opening next week) is an absurdist fantasy of senior-age machismo, Off the Black—named for the pitch that narrowly misses the mark—comes infinitely closer to the reality of exhausted masculinity. It's a ninth-inning movie wherein the ump's only triumph is another brutally honest call.

The first of these unpopular decisions—"ball four"—is issued, in Nolte's patented rasp, at the start of the film. The crestfallen pitcher is Dave (Trevor Morgan), a sad-eyed, shaggy-haired 17-year-old in a small industrial town who comes to the crotchety ump's 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 trio's straggling member, peels off the kid's 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-limit brewsky-swilling. And it proves mutually beneficial, since Dave's hollowed-out dad (Timothy Hutton) is even more the strong and silent type than Ray, and Dave could use a mentor if not a role model. He even agrees to attend Ray's 40-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 isn't just for sissies, you know?" As in Affliction, another Nolte-driven study of masculinity, the awkwardness of the men's 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 Alzheimer's-suffering dad (Michael Higgins) is able to swing at the ump's humorously desperate conversational pitches.

Among this decade's more modest American indies, Off the Black belongs on the shelf beside Spring Forward and Old Joy; it's not as deep or resonant as those two, but, despite extraneous supporting characters (i.e., women), it's likewise concerned with lamenting—and, I dare say, expanding—the limitations of men's communication skills. Ray "talks" to his son by mailing him self-made videotapes in which he puts on absurdly classy airs, featuring himself as a fine diner in what looks like a '70s-era ad for Earnest and Julio Gallo when the real Ray feels at home in a soiled T-shirt under a "Kiss the Cook" barbeque apron. The father might be a white liar at best, but both umpire and actor call 'em as they see 'em.