Diamond in the rough
Troubled Keanu Reeves coaches poor kids in uplifting 'Hardball'
In "Hardball," the kids are black and their baseball coach is black Irish.
The name is Conor O'Neill, and he's played by Keanu Reeves. Viewers may need to check their cynicism with an usher to enjoy this disarming movie about a guy on the skids who finds salvation in the Chicago projects.
The thing is, "Hardball" works where it counts, on the emotional level. Some of the movie's heart-tugging effects stack the deck -- one is a whopper -- but Reeves, as a borderline alcoholic and compulsive gambler, makes up for it with a very sympathetic performance. If Reeves plays his cards right, he could still become a big-time prole anti-hero, a John Garfield in the making, as well as "Matrix" spinner.
The ethically slippery O'Neill -- a ticket scalper who's into bookies for thousands and is likely to get his thumbs broken for it -- accepts money under the table to take over coaching the preteen, housing-project baseball team. O'Neill is given to stretching the truth, all too transparently, for his own aggrandizement, but he isn't the only one. The stockbroker who palms off the coaching gig on him says he originally had wanted "to give something back to the community." Sure.
It's a team nobody wants. The closest O'Neill has come to a baseball bat is the one he carries every time he answers a knock on the door, and the team members -- the Kekambas -- are rightly skeptical of him. He smokes on the sidelines and can hardly understand a word the boys say. His gambling buddy sarcastically calls him "the coach of the crack babies."
The Kekambas each come with a distinctive trait, a little too pat but hard to resist. One of the ball players is asthmatic, for instance, and another pitches and dances with headphones over his ears (actually a form of self- defense to drown out feared jeers from the crowd). It's almost a relief that a couple of these kids are easier to resist than others, especially when director Brian Robbins ("Varsity Blues") lets them get away with merely showing off.
Diane Lane ("The Perfect Storm") plays a schoolteacher who sees through O'Neill and also sees something in him.
"Hardball" goes out of its way in a disclaimer to say that the people and events depicted have no connection with any organization (i.e., Little League), but coincidentally, real life keeps breaking through the story. Some fast-and-loose messing around with the date on a birth certificate will remind people of the "12-year-old" (who was actually 14) Little League pitcher recently in the news.
Robbins' directing occasionally drifts off into Robert Redford-style mythic celebration of the game, but the scene where O'Neill takes the kids to a big- league game (with a cameo by a star slugger) still got to me.
Parents of children who want to see this movie should be aware that, late in the game, "Hardball" makes a sudden turn toward an act of violence, which isn't entirely unexpected. The PG-13 rating (inappropriate for children younger than 13) is certainly the right one. While preteens might seem a natural constituency for this movie, they need a parent or other adult who will take them and talk to them about it afterward.
The movie has some healing to offer, and this is a good time for it.