130308-hardballIn Hardball, Keanu Reeves plays a white guy who comes in to save the day for a bunch of black kids by coaching their disorganized little-league baseball team in the Chicago projects. In an attempt to make the premise less mawkish and offensive than it just sounded (blacks can’t get it together until the white man helps), Keanu has also been made a ne’er-do-well gambler who owes serious cash and only takes the coaching assignment because of the promise of $500 a week. So this isn’t just an inspirational story of disadvantaged youth triumphant — it’s a story of redemption.

I’ll let Hollywood get away with it just this once. [NOTE: This review was written the weekend after 9/11.] I was in the mood for something easy and familiar, something predictable, if you know what I mean; Hardball isn’t generally my kind of movie, but on its own terms it’s relatively painless and harmless. I don’t know if I’d recommend it to anyone except those who feel the need to sink into a lukewarm bath of clichés for two hours, to enter a world that, while formulaic and hackneyed, makes some sort of sense. This is less a hardball than a softball, without any curves or surprises. That’s okay just now.

Brian Robbins, who used to be an actor (the intellectual hood Eric on Head of the Class) before graduating to directing (Varsity Blues, Ready to Rumble), seems to have a sharp eye for premises that play better on video. Here, working from a by-the-numbers script by John Gatins, Robbins hits all the plot-point bases. Keanu resents having to coach the team until he gets to know them. The kids do nothing but trash-talk each other (the trash-talk has been noticeably cleaned up to win a PG-13 rating — at one point you hear the only-in-PG-13-movies-or-network-TV epithet “motherfreaker”) until they learn to play as a team. Keanu flirts with the kids’ English teacher (Diane Lane), who wearily tolerates this ruffian until she comes to realize that he’s the star of the movie and therefore worthy of her affection.

Diane Lane is usually of interest — it’s a relief to see her relaxed here after her overdone Glah-stah accent in The Perfect Storm — and Keanu Reeves works nimbly with her; he works well with everyone here, including the kids, but also John Hawkes as Keanu’s gambler crony. Reeves, as an actor, is on and off. When allowed to withdraw into a cocoon of surfer-dude cool, he comes across as wasted space on the screen, but give him a modicum of friction and he actually can bestir himself to connect with his costars and with us. He sells a grandstanding moment in which he invites the president of the ball league to explain to his team why one player has been disallowed and another can no longer pitch without the headphones that have been keeping his pitching laser-sharp; he even sells a grief-choked speech after tragedy strikes the team.

Did we need the tragedy? It takes the air out of the remainder of the movie, and the speech is intercut with scenes that are meant to be bittersweet but come off as emotional bullying. There’s no question that the team will go on to win the championship, but this is the first uplifting sports movie I can recall wherein the triumph happens offscreen — we’re fobbed off with snapshots of the players smiling with their trophies. Hardball isn’t primarily about the sport; its pulse is the shabby white man learning to be nice and reach out to black kids, but it doesn’t really show why the kids respond to him when their playing sucked under his predecessor. Is it just because he’s Keanu Reeves and the kids know he’s cool from The Matrix? The movie offers little other explanation.

Explore posts in the same categories: comedy, drama

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