In “Screwball,” Billy Corben's irreverent dissection of the Biogenesis baseball doping scandal, too much is just enough. The film assaults the senses with extra helpings of talking-head interviews, oodles of information and a wall-to-wall soundtrack that's lively if a tad on the obvious side. Oh, and to top it off, this “Miami AF” documentary features dramatic reenactments, a first (as far as I know) for the “Cocaine Cowboys” maverick and his Miami-based media studio rakontur (lowercase on purpose). Not the A&E kind, either. In here, all the roles are played by kids lip syncing the first-person accounts. The cheese is strong with this one, and in this case, that's a good thing.
This revelation is hardly a spoiler. The film, which is having its Miami premiere on Saturday as part of the 2019 Miami Film Festival after having screened during the Key West Film Festival back in November, lets the cat out of the bag right away. It throws unsuspecting viewers off the deep end of the pool by starting mid-scene, as it were. The setting is the Boca Tanning Club on Federal, where good-natured gym bunny Porter Fischer (Frankie Diaz) stops, leaving boxes filled with documents containing enough damning tidbits to topple an empire in the trunk of his silver Corolla. What the chiseled but naive lug doesn't know is that his spray-on bronze is gonna come with a helping of sticky fingers. He discovers his ride's been broken into, and his explosive data has gone poof.
Confused? Reader, so was I. Everything is explained, eventually, but this jarring “cold open” is just that: disorienting and abrupt. Corben, working from a screenplay he wrote with frequent collaborator and longtime editor David Cypkin, might have been able to pull this off if this were an actual feature, but here it feels indulgent and misjudged, a stab at narrative momentum from filmmakers who know the material inside out but don't quite realize most viewers know next to nothing about the story they're about to tell. The whiplash effect is pretty unavoidable.
Okay, so the beginning of “Screwball” doesn't work. Here's the good news: Just about everything else does. The rest of the movie is a blast, a deliciously snarky tale of corruption and malfeasance most foul that could have only gone down in South Florida. Corben directs this juicy yarn like the smart aleck in class who can't seem to stay out of trouble. He's the nonfiction director your mother warned you about. Decision time: Do we want to be good, or do we want to be naughty? (Psst, it's the red pill, not the blue pill, you want to take.)
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“Screwball” hits the ground running by introducing its star player: medical field entrepreneur Tony Bosch, who opened Biogenesis of America near the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables. (So what if Bosch wasn't legally allowed to practice medicine in the U.S.?) The health clinic specialized in weight loss and anti-aging treatments, but what really got the Benjamins rolling in during the early 2010s was an influx of Major League Baseball players, including at one point former New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez (Blake McCall), who used Bosch's sneaky cocktail of human growth hormone. “Take it in micro doses,” he advises his new clients, “and you'll pass every drug test.”
Yeaahh, about that... Things spiral out of control in both expected and surprising ways, as Fischer enters the picture, first as an asset to Biogenesis, then as a thorn in its path. Corben navigates the hairpin turns like a pro. He weaves a tangled web and then unpacks it in a way that even a sports-averse viewer (like yours truly) can follow the thread and not get lost. The director has said rakontur films are slaves to story. It's an affinity that's proven limiting and even detrimental in previous efforts. Not here, though. The unfiltered narrative approach, give or take a tangential political jab or two, fits the subject matter like a catcher's glove. The results give you a giddy high. In other words, “Screwball” plays like the movie “Pain & Gain” should have been. (Could you imagine that film with children filling in for Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson? I can.)
Speaking of the children, the pint-sized cast in grown-up dress-up adds an absurdist dimension to Corben's hopped-up storytelling that makes this caffeinated doc go down easy, despite the unrelenting pace. Kudos to the casting agent who selected McCall. He's not just a dead ringer for A-Rod; he captures the athlete's narcissistic aloofness with pitch-perfect precision.
As always, Corben's most valuable gift is his ability to rope in the very people who, one would think, would be the least likely to sit in front of the camera and confess their shady misdeeds. But the director, who is also world premiering his Magic City Casino/jai-alai documentary “Magic City Hustle” this weekend, not only gets these people to talk. He gets them to spill the beans, knowing it will make them susceptible to being the butt of the joke. And he makes it all feel effortless. As conflicting accounts pile up, the “Rashomon”-like cacophony forms a tapestry of resentment and brazen entitlement that lays bare the consequences of these scoundrels' ill-advised behavior yet also finds poignancy in their stories and even generates empathy for them.
“Screwball” will likely draw the “30 for 30” crowd once it becomes available to stream later this year, but you should still tune in even if you're not part of this target audience. Corben might have corporate sports in general, and the MLB suits in particular, in his crosshairs, but his ultimate target goes beyond this world. There's a disdain for toxic privilege, be it pertaining to class, national origin or the hand that life gives you, that propels this distinctly SoFlo story and helps it transcend its Miami-New-Times-on-speed trappings. (New Times reporter Tim Elfrink, who broke the story in 2013, is interviewed; you'd think by now he would have learned how to pronounce “Velazquez” without sounding like a gringo.) Corben might not be approaching his subject in the most mature way, but “Screwball's” thematic breadth nevertheless shows how far he's come as a filmmaker. Such growth is alone reason to pop the champagne. He's made a tasty portrait of Sunshine State chicanery that's refreshingly unpretentious and fearless. The balls on this movie have nothing to do with those pitched in a diamond.