Teaching Inner City Kids Baseball and (Sniff!) Life
by Stephen Holden
Just when you're about to sigh with relief that ''Hardball'' has resisted the impulse to drain every tear duct, this amiable baseball movie makes an abrupt U-turn and sinks into a sudsy mire.
Although it would be unfair to describe that catalytic moment, suffice to say it is a gratuitous plot wrinkle worthy of last year's shameless sob fest ''Pay It Forward.'' And it forces Keanu Reeves, who plays the coach of an inner city baseball team, to deliver misty-eyed inspirational boilerplate about how ''the most important thing in life is showing up.'' And that's not all. He must also sermonize about being personally ''lifted to a better place'' and made ''a better person'' by tragedy.
The role of Conor O'Neill, a reluctant baseball coach and compulsive gambler who saves himself by leading a team of inner city children from disarray to glory suits a star who specializes in tales of redemption and initiation. Although Mr. Reeves is now in his 30's, there is something eternally boyish and unformed about him. Here, as in almost all his movies, he exudes the insecurely puffed-up aura of an adolescent boy dressed as Superman. His voice seems pitched slightly lower than its natural register, and his walk is the self-conscious swagger of a teenager strutting his manhood in a high school hallway.
When we first meet Conor, he is a compulsive low-level gambler who owes thousands of dollars to bookies who haunt the Chicago sports bars where he places his bets. In the movie's early scenes, Mr. Reeves makes us feel the addictive mixture of electric anticipation and desperation that fuels a compulsive gambling habit. When his debts become unmanageable and bullies are chasing him with baseball bats, Conor turns for help to a childhood friend, a successful investment banker, who has bailed him out of previous crises. This time, instead of lending him cash, he insists Conor earn $500 a week by coaching the youth team, the Kekambas, that his corporation sponsors.
Although Conor complains that he is terrible with children, he has no choice. And after some awkward early dealings with the Kekambas, he proves to be exactly what they need. Conveniently observing from the sidelines is an attractive, strait-laced teacher, Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane), who is attracted to Conor despite seeing through his pose (he claims to be an investment banker). Their developing friendship is the source of what may be the movie's single worst speech, in which Conor gratefully gushes, ''You really like me!,'' uinintentionally echoing Sally Field's famous Oscar acceptance speech.
In portraying the Kekambas, ''Hardball'' strikes a cautious blow for reality by putting profanity into the mouths of the team members, who are otherwise as adorable as the Bad News Bears. And this concession to realism prevents the movie from becoming terminally air-headed and goody-goody. Somewhat surprisingly putting such street language into the mouths of pre-adolescents doesn't detract from their cuteness. Without realizing it, the movie plainly demonstrates that the power of language lies less in words themselves than in how they're directed and their context.
An entirely likable bunch, the Kekambas include the pudgy, asthmatic Jefferson Albert Tibbs (Julian Griffith), a late-blooming star pitcher; Miles Pennfield II (A. Delon Ellis Jr.), whose confidence on the mound depends on his wearing headphones that blast out his favorite rap song; and the very young, cutesy-poo G-baby (DeWayne Warren), who is a couple of months shy of eligibility to play on the team.
For all its shamelessness, the movie, directed by Brian Robbins from a screenplay by John Gatins (who adapted it from Daniel Coyle's autobiographical book, ''Hardball: A Season in the Projects'') does surprisingly few lurches as it walks the tightrope between urban realism (its grittier moments portray housing-project existence as a prisonlike living hell) and family entertainment. And its uplifting message about teamwork and caring wouldn't hurt a fly. You might even say, the movie is good for you.
''Hardball'' is rated PG-13. It has abundant profanity and scenes of violence.