An unabashedly corny but occasionally stirring dramedy.
After spending nearly two years in post-production limbo due to financial and legal squabbles, “The Perfect Game” finally is stepping up to the plate for few theatrical innings. It’s an unabashedly corny but occasionally stirring dramedy based on the true-life story of scrappy young baseball players from Mexico who, in 1957, scored an improbable string of successes while playing their way from a Monterrey sandlot to the Little League World Series. Pic could post modestly respectable B.O. numbers — especially in markets with a strong Hispanic demographic — but isn’t likely to clean up until it reaches ancillary ballparks.Lenser Bryan Greenberg and production designer Denise Hudson prove to be most valuable players while striking the perfect balance of grim verisimilitude and kidpic sunniness during early scenes that convey the hard-scrabble nature of day-to-day life in ’50s Monterrey. In such an environment, where most of the menfolk appear ground down by their demanding jobs in the local steel smelting plant, even an eternal optimist like twinkly eyed Padre Esteben (Cheech Marin) often finds it difficult to lift the spirits of his flock. But a few plucky youngsters refuse to be defeated while taking a DIY approach to mastering the intricacies of baseball. What the kids need is a miracle. What they get is Cesar Fez (Clifton Collins Jr.), a hard-drinking cynic who’s returned home after a frustrating stint with the St. Louis Cardinals. Team management wasn’t ready to promote Cesar — or any other Mexican, apparently — to a coaching position. But the young baseballers in Monterrey are very eager to draw on his expertise. Once Cesar agrees to coach the would-be Little Leaguers, “The Perfect Game” proceeds at an unhurried pace along a well-trod path to a predictable payoff. Along the way, the youngsters and their coach have a few unpleasant brushes with racist Anglos, including some baseball fans who can’t believe ragtag Mexican kids are winning an “American” game. For the most part, however, pic simply moves from one upset victory to the next, providing mostly pleasant diversion as scripter W. William Winokur only rarely places anything that resembles a serious impediment in the team’s way. Helmer William Dear (“Angels in the Outfield”) does little to generate suspense during the actual games. Indeed, the onfield action is shot and edited in such a fragmented fashion, it’s hard to tell whether the young actors really can play baseball at all. When they’re not playing, however, the adolescent thesps — especially Jake T. Austin (Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place”) as a determined pitcher desperate for his father’s approval — are sufficiently credible and engaging. Collins makes an agreeable impression, despite overplaying a couple of emotional scenes. Marin is lightly amusing without diminishing his character’s authority while providing guidance and inspiration. Pic overall takes a respectful but unstuffy approach to matters of religious belief, and could very well appeal to faith-based audiences. Other grown-ups of note in the cast include Emilie de Ravin as a feisty femme reporter who covers the Monterrey team; Louis Gossett Jr. as an aged ex-Negro League player who provides sage advice to the kids; Frances Fisher as a waitress who roots for the Little Leaguers; and Bruce McGill as a racially unenlightened MLB manager. Despite evidence of a limited budget, period detail is impressive throughout. Newsreel footage of the real-life Monterrey players is used sparingly but skillfully in transitional scenes and an upbeat epilogue. There is a bit too much of Bill Conti’s music for comfort — more than enough, in fact, for auds to note similarities to the composer’s trademark “Rocky” score.