Documentary Review: “Screwball” takes a comic jab at Baseball and Performance Enhancing Drugs

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Our short-attention-span culture can be forgiven for forgetting — with any new round of celeb photos, red carpet shots with wife Jennifer Lopez, what a shady scumbag ex-ballplayer Alex Rodriguez was and probably remains.

So lest we forget, here’s “Screwball,” a pretty good recollection, dissection and postmortem of A-Rod and baseball’s epic Biogenesis scandal of less than ten years ago.

Birector Billy Corben, most famous for the “Cocaine Cowboys” movies, and the pot-smuggling documentary “Square Grouper,” has also done films for ESPN on the University of Miami and on pro-athletes who went broke after playing, and another doc called “The Tanning of America.”

So he’s the perfect guy to tie together the corrupt, anything-goes culture of South Florida, the unregulated “anti-aging” clinics that sprang up there and thrived under then-governor and well-known medical fraud tycoon Rick Scott and the (mostly Latin) baseball players who cheated to get ahead.

Corben’s film shows how they found their hook-up with Tony Bosch, a Cuban American compadre who speaks their language and got his entre into their world by making Manny Ramirez into the feared late-career home-run hitter nicknamed “Man-Ram” by some.

Corben interviewed investigators, Bosch and most of the other principles involved in this 2013 scandal — not A-Rod, and not Major League Baseball — and concocted a  comic riff on this scandal that devolved into a comedy of errors, in which virtually none of the guilty were truly punished.

He uses Tim Elfrink, the reporter for Miami New Times who broke this story via a disgruntled business associate of Bosch, as tour guide through a stink that implicated Rodriguez in all manner of wrongdoing, right down to hiring “protesters” after he was sanctioned by baseball — people paid to show up at ball parks holding up pro-A-Rod/anti-Bosch signs to sway public opinion.

It didn’t work, although truthfully, most of us have forgotten and moved on.

It’s a solidly–reported documentary, with plenty of context and lots of Tony Bosch at the heart of it, a fast-talking hustler who parlayed a medical degree from Belize into an anti-aging and then athlete-juicing practice that gained him riches, reflected glory and finally infamy.

Most of his credentials, the film points out, are “self-proclaimed.” And one of the funnier bits in it is Bosch griping about the difference between a “fake doctor” and “an unlicensed physician” — as if that matters.

Corben IDs the cast of characters with baseball card shaped freeze frames, and on occasion (not consistently at all) he stages reenactments of events the various figures took part in. These reenactments star children, little boys mouthing the words of testimony from those implicated and those allegedly doing the investigating.

For instance, disgruntled marketing man and fitness, tanning and “anti-aging” fan Porter Fischer, who took the books that gave away the high school, college and professional athletes “Dr. T” (Bosch) “helped,” is portrayed by a kid wearing a fake-muscle suit.

Cute. Unnecessary, but cute.

But as the story unfolds, you kind of get why Corben saw the whole thing as childish and comical.

The State of Florida, “where fraud is the state industry” Elfrink says, hired a onetime Baltimore police officer to be their South Florida investigator of medical fraud. Jerome Hill had been fired in Baltimore for causes that should have ensured he’d never work in law enforcement again.

Florida is where guys like this get their second chance. Hill notes that Fischer, mixed up with some tough guys who ran tanning salons and were involved in the whole affair to an extent that they knew who they could blackmail and how they could cover it up, “is lucky he’s not in a canal somewhere.”

Major League Baseball, following up on the widening scandal Miami New Times had broken (a black eye for ALL of TV and print sports journalism, by the way), sent “investigators” to Florida to pay for information, offer bribes and sleep with employees of people they were supposed to be investigating.

“Every sleazy thing” MLB did to get to the facts, “A-Rod and his crew were doing the same thing” to ensure those facts never saw the light of day.

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It was a mess, and the ineptitude of the state and the sport to police these practices and those wrongdoers can only be laughed at, now.

Which is why Corben gives the subject its comical treatment. It’s just that he loses his nerve, only recreating a few anecdotes instead of the bulk of the story with kid-reenactors.

I can’t say the scenes where he did that worked for me — kids looking like a young A-Rod, Bosch (complete with wig and “Dr. Tony Bosch” lab coat), Fischer and others, mouthing the words of whoever is telling this part of the story. Probably why Corben didn’t stick with this gimmick, start to finish.

He’s a terrific documentary storyteller, as his drug trade documentaries made clear. He just got too cute for his own good and got in his own way a bit, here.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast:Bryan Blanco, Frankie Diaz, Jonathan Blanco

Credits:Directed by Billy Corben. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:43

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