In a way, The Catcher Was A Spy is the perfect star vehicle for Paul Rudd, who built his career on playing (and parodying) the kind of smarmy guy who can convince anyone of anything with a flash of his perfect teeth. That’s also one of the key assets pro baseball player-turned-secret agent Moe Berg (Rudd) brought to the Allied war effort during World War II—that, and fluency in seven languages (plus conversational skills in four more), a brilliant mind for chess, a subscription to the Journal Of Oriental Society, a proficiency in judo that comes up once and is never mentioned again, a casual interest in nuclear physics, and the chutzpah to walk right up to a government official and say, “You should make me a spy.”
We open with Berg on the ball field, the camera zooming toward him at waist level so he towers over the frame. Berg’s career in baseball is about at its end, and so during a trip to Japan on a sports exchange program, he decides he’ll do a little unsolicited freelance work taking photos of the Japanese fleet from atop Tokyo Tower. This catches the attention of William J. Donovan (Jeff Daniels), director of CIA precursor the Office Of Strategic Services, who hires Berg for a clerical job at the agency. Paul Rudd-level charisma can’t stay chained to a desk for long, though, and soon Berg is sent to Germany on a top-secret mission to track down Italian physicist Prof. Edoardo Amaldi (Giancarlo Giannini) and mine him for information on how to find—and kill—his former colleague, Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong), before he can develop a nuclear weapon for the Nazis.
It’s a fascinating story, full of intrigue and interesting real-life characters played by a distinguished supporting cast. (Paul Giamatti, Guy Pearce, Tom Wilkinson, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Sienna Miller all make appearances.) Yet somehow, The Catcher Was A Spy is flavorless and unexciting, thanks to an execution as formulaic as a well-worn copy of The Joy Of Cooking. Director Ben Lewin is known for middlebrow fare like last year’s Please Stand By, and here he uses decades-old conventions of both WWII dramas and biopics to similarly unoriginal effect, from a script riddled with manly bon mots that screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot), adapting a nonfiction bestseller by Nicholas Dawidoff, could have probably written in his sleep.
Rudd is never really pushed past his surface-level charms as Berg, waving away details that would really have given the film some depth—like questions about his character’s sexuality—with a quip and a smile. Combined with the seemingly infinite reveals of Berg’s many athletic and intellectual talents, it turns an enigmatic character into a shallow one. The rest of the film doesn’t dig much deeper, capturing lush European locations (the film was partially shot in Prague) in a claustrophobic style that gives them the look of a studio backlot. To mimic the clichéd voice-over that opens the film: Even with its bases loaded with talent, The Catcher Was A Spy is a swing and a miss.