There’s no cork inside “Hardball,” but there’s more than enough corn. Everything about the movie is geared for maximum uplifting and tear-jerking effect, and seems designed, in the end, to question the old saw that there’s no crying in baseball. John Gatins’ script has taken Daniel Coyle’s autobiographical “Hardball: A Season in the Projects,” an account of coaching a youth baseball team in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project, as a launching pad for a flight into pure Hollywood sentiment, and more problematically, into realms of race relations which pic is much too insecure about to explore honestly. It links up nicely, and compares favorably, to the other romance about the diamonds from helmer Brian Robbins and co-producing partner Mike Tollin, “Summer Catch,” whose current B.O. choke is so thorough that it will take nothing from their new film’s rookie week. Post-Labor Day-release timing is passing strange, however, since this is a drama intended as a family outing, albeit with enough course language to stretch the credibility of the generous PG-13 rating.
As if he were carrying around the ghosts of every melodramatic hero of movies past from Ray Milland to Montgomery Clift, Keanu Reeves stars as Conor O’Neill, a wastrel hooked on sports betting and utterly blind to the clues that he should stop. Conor fails to cover the spread on a Bulls game and, in true Cliftian form, after being caught by sports bar owner Duffy (Graham Beckel), to whom he owes a bundle, he bashes his fist into a car window and his head into a bar window with the gloomy exit line, “No one can kick my ass better than me.”
Like vultures, other bookies swoop in on Conor for what he owes them, and not even pal and gambling enabler Ticky (John Hawkes) can help, except by bailing him out of jail. Expecting to get a favor from his friend Jimmy (Mike McGlone), who’s a slick broker at a downtown Chicago brokerage firm, Conor is told by Jimmy to help him coach a youth league baseball squad, the Kekambas, that the firm sponsors. His pay of $500 per week will immediately go to his hungry bookies.
But what Jimmy actually does is dump Conor with the team of 10-year-olds, with no tips on how to manage a group of young black kids growing up in the city’s toughest project.
There have been few movie characters all year more obviously intended for redemption than Conor, and from the start, despite the story’s true origins, it feels like a setup. Conor could not be more of a lost soul; the kids, many of whom could not be cuter (especially Julian Griffith as chubby, asthmatic Jefferson and DeWayne Warren as little Jarius), also could not be more ready for a male adult in their lives; and to set the fires going, Conor has beautiful but tough-minded teacher Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane) to steer him.
Even when it looks like these feisty, foul-mouthed kids can’t possibly form a cohesive unit, well, have no fear: Conor is able to put his foot down, satisfy the boys with pizza and even take them on a glorious trip to Wrigley Field. Not even a heart-wrenching tragedy, stretched past the point of extreme pathos, can stop this team from winning the league championship and redeeming Conor.
In a telling scene that displays his limits as an actor able to convey life’s funny ironies, Reeves’ way with Conor makes him look more like a schizophrenic than a man wrestling with his conscience. This becomes a serious problem for the movie as a whole, since the story is almost entirely from Conor’s p.o.v.
Unconsciously or not, Gatins’ script positions Conor as the Great White Protector, the only one in the end (despite Elizabeth and several mothers who clearly know right from wrong) who can bring these boys into manhood. It’s a troublesome theme that the pic simply lacks the substance to examine, superficially laying it out as something to swallow, along with the corn.
Most of the young actors may have been cast first for their skills on the field (shown more effectively here than in the minor-league play of “Summer Catch”), but some are terrific outside the lines. Griffith is asked to play the movie’s poster child of pain, but he does it with all his heart, as does Warren, who’s a tiny fireball of energy and trash talk. As cocky Andre, Bryan C. Hearne suggests a jock-to-come, while Michael Perkins provides quiet intensity as troubled-but-talented Kofi. Brian M. Reed as a goofy pitcher never overplays what could have become a cartoon.
Neither too glossy nor convincingly rough edged, pic’s look and sound play it down the middle, from Mark Isham’s suitable background score and a stream of hip-hop selections to Tom Richmond’s plain lensing.