Fans howled when word got out that Paul Rudd was cast as the most ridiculous of Marvel’s superheroes — Ant Man. He had previously specialized in comedies, and fans had a hard time believing he could establish credibility with audiences. But the filmmakers wisely shaped the role around Rudd’s offbeat comedic charm, which he used as his starting point, and then brought dramatic gravitas to the character.
Those aware of Rudd’s career should not have been surprised. Before Judd Apatow, he was a spell-binding dramatic actor who projected a lively intelligence. Sadly, though in “The Catcher Was a Spy” — a more or less real-life biography of a professional baseball catcher named Moe Berg who moonlighted as an Allied spy during World War II — Rudd’s charisma has been gutted and he is more comatose than brilliant.
The film centers on Berg’s mission to determine how far along the Nazis were with the atomic bomb, and he is tasked with assassinating a German physicist (played by Mark Strong). In the role of Werner Heisenberg, who was possibly working with the Allies, Strong gives the kind of enigmatic and dramatic energy one wishes Rudd had brought to his role.
Perhaps Rudd thought that Berg’s amazing background, as a multilingual graduate of Princeton and Columbia that earned him the nickname, the “brainiest man in baseball,” could do all the dramatic heavy-lifting. But he fails to give viewers a sense of the character’s brilliance and mysterious qualities; one of which was the possibility of his homosexuality. It’s a pity that screenwriter Robert Rodat, who excelled at presenting Tom Hanks as a mystery to the infantry unit he commanded in “Saving Private Ryan,” couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same with Rudd.
Both he and Rudd miss the boat on exploring the thematic possibilities of Berg’s sexuality. If Berg were homosexual then, when gay men had to conduct a secret life of codes and meeting places, he would already have been well-prepared for the life of a spy.
Rudd is clearly a gifted actor, who has that rare ability to go from dramatic roles to comedic ones; the latter of which one actor said on his deathbed, “Dying was easy; comedy is hard.” Of course playing an enigma while at the same time exciting curiosity on the audience’s part is equally difficult. But it can be done. Michael Keaton, who had as lengthy a comedic film resume as Rudd’s, was electrifying as the crazed CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton in “The Company.”
Not since Roger Moore’s turn as James Bond has an actor sleepwalked through a film like Rudd has here. The best part of this movie lies in its supporting cast. Jeff Daniels, the least likely person to have been an OSS chief, excels. So does Sienna Miller as Rudd’s girlfriend, who might have served as a “beard” for Berg’s closeted life.
In real life, the self-promoting Berg loved to excite controversy by giving hints about his spy work. Unfortunately, this film does not do the same.