Monotonous `Cobb' Goes Down Swinging

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XX 1/2 "Cobb," with Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl, Lolita Davidovich. Written and directed by Ron Shelton. Metro Cinemas. "R" - Restricted; profanity, violence, nudity. -----------------------------------------------------------------

One great, shattering scene almost redeems this repetitive and strangely unfocused attempt to deal with the last days of baseball legend Ty Cobb.

The 72-year-old Cobb, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is attending a Cooperstown Hall of Fame testimonial banquet and watching old newsreels of his triumphs. Everyone else in the room is reminded of the successful athlete, but Cobb experiences a wrenching series of flashbacks. The old films trigger memories that are unbearably painful because they reveal what a monster he was and is.

"Cobb" is not a biography in the conventional sense. Ken Burns' "Baseball" does a better job of demonstrating why Cobb was important to the game, what he accomplished professionally, and why people put up with his ugly side.

The script by sports-movie veteran Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham," "White Men Can't Jump") is an understandable but rather monotonous attempt to deal with the differences between hard truth and media-created mirages.

It's almost a two-character epic, with Jones as Cobb spending most of the movie's 120-minute running time trying to convince his hired biographer, sportswriter Al Stump (played by Robert Wuhl), to sanitize him and present him as someone other than a racist, cruel, abusive bully.

The theme recalls John Ford's 1962 Western, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," in which the identity of the man who rid a community of a murderous outlaw is deliberately suppressed in order to create a hero. "Print the legend" was Ford's ironic conclusion.

The conclusion of "Cobb" is more ambivalent. Stump did print the legend when he published "My Life in Baseball: The True Record" after Cobb's death in the early 1960s. Years later, however, he regretted the whitewash. Pieces of the true Cobb began to appear in Stump's magazine articles in the 1970s and 1980s; his warts-and-all book, "Cobb: A Biography," was published in late 1994.

Unfortunately, the movie just makes Stump look like a self-important jerk, possibly a bigger jerk than Cobb, and Wuhl's affable, weightless performance doesn't help. The fact that Cobb's reputation was already pretty terrible when he died also makes the entire setup seem rather pointless. Why try to hide something that's in plain sight?

Has the Oscar curse afflicted Tommy Lee Jones? He was all over the place last summer, following up his shrewd, witty performance in "The Fugitive" by hamming his way through "Blown Away," "The Client" and "Natural Born Killers." As Cobb, he continues in that exhausting vein. He hasn't been on-screen more than 10 minutes before he's worn out his welcome. He's certainly captured Cobb's obnoxious qualities, but he's less successful at suggesting Cobb's sly humor and his surprisingly charitable side.

Jones' most subtle, intelligent "recent" work, as Jessica Lange's beleaguered husband in "Blue Sky," was actually filmed more than three years ago. The movie just didn't get released until last fall. Its delayed appearance is an uncomfortable reminder of what fame and a busy work schedule (or something) seems to have cost him.