Striking Out

In Field of Dreams, the secret to success is building the field. In Rookie of the Year, the key is an arm of steel. In Hardball, this season's newest baseball flick, the way to win is listening to Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa."

But can we even call this movie a baseball flick? Oddly enough, it is just as much a bookie-on-the-run thriller. And the religious symbolism that opens the movie and the Christian decorations all over the hero's house are equally confounding. What's going on here?

Unfortunately, that's a question that the film never answers. In the first five minutes, it's unclear if the lead, Connor O'Neil (Keanu Reeves), is in Europe about to embark on a missionary adventure. A priest asks O'Neil what he is "looking for," and he replies, "I'm lookin' for the Bulls to cover the spread." Suddenly the scene jumps to O'Neil and his idiotic sidekick, Ticky (John Hawkes), enthusiastically watching a basketball game on which they have bet money. We soon learn that O'Neil is a bookie, and a bad one at that. He owes money all around town, and thugs threaten his life daily, demanding he pay them thousands in gambling debts.

After exhausting all of his resources, poor O'Neil goes to his pal James Fleming, a high-brow country-club type who offers to pay him $500 a week to coach a little league baseball team in a seedy part of town because he likes to "give back to the community." O'Neil starts coaching and of course hates it. The rest of the story is a predictable, saccharine rendition of Bullworth. Coach Connor gradually becomes close to the team of tykes and helps them escape the horrors of their everyday lives with the joys of baseball.

The screenwriter splices in a weak romantic subplot and the tumultuous bookie-in-trouble scenes at random, reinforcing the film's lack of direction and mediocrity. Other than the incompetently constructed story line and dialogue, the worst part of the film is the direction. Each character changes personalities at least three times per scene. When O'Neil is deciding whether to quit coaching the team, he starts off by apologizing. Two lines later he yells, "Don't you think I have other more important things going on in my life than this stupid baseball team?!!" Two lines after that he invites them all to jump in his car and watch their first big league baseball game.

No matter what he did, O'Neil never evokes empathy. The character's hot temper and disdain for the nine- and 10-year-olds he coached offsets his human dimension. There's no one in the movie to really relate to and it's unclear whether we're supposed to be laughing or crying, which could in part be due to Reeves' complete incapacity for comedy.

On one hand, the movie tries to be light hearted, with DeWayne Warren, Bryan Hearne and Julian Griffith's endearing performances as little league players. On the other, it tries to be a tearjerker with tragic scenes from the projects and peeks into broken homes. Also incompatible with these two story lines is the relationship between O'Neil and the kids' English teacher, Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane), which never really develops, despite exaggerated television previews. The two share one date, which lasts all of five minutes. The only flirtatious exchange is when Ms. Wilkes says to O'Neil, "We need a physical activities coordinator," and he replies, "You and me?"

This film is so unsuccessful because while the dialogue gets no deeper than the aforementioned examples, the story struggles to be more profound than The Godfather. Some characters, such as the players' mothers, are serious and tragic at times, whereas others, such as the rival team's coach, Matt Hyland (D.B. Sweeney), are either total jokes or totally unconvincing.

Hardball would probably be more satisfying if you could write it off as a spoof or an Adam Sandler wannabe. Unfortunately, the multi-faceted acting and schizophrenic directing make it a total flop. However, the song "Big Poppa" isn't the team's secret to success for nothing. Ironically, the soundtrack is the film's only salvation.


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