'Calvin Marshall'

Pic is distinguished mainly by Steve Zahn's dynamite perf as an embittered junior college baseball coach.

Given the business-driven, scandal-ridden state of professional sports, it is perhaps not surprising that movies in search of inspirational uplift should look to the losers in their respective fields: wrestling in next month’s “Legendary,” and baseball in the lower-budgeted “Calvin Marshall.” A heartland heartstring-tugger about a truly decent guy with an unparalleled reverence but not much aptitude for his chosen sport, writer-director Gary Lundgren’s debut is distinguished mainly by Steve Zahn’s dynamite perf as an embittered junior college baseball coach whose own career stalled in the minors. Pedestrian, often hokey, “Calvin” seems headed for a similar ancillary fate.

Awash in sepia-tinged, small-town nostalgia, pic establishes its hero’s absolute dedication to the great American pastime early on in one of its ubiquitous montages, as Calvin (Alex Frost) awakens at the crack of dawn to train. Even usually cynical Coach Little (Zahn) is moved enough by the kid’s desperation and persistence to wait until the last minute to cut him from the team in tryouts — for the third year in a row.

The coach even allows Calvin to retain his locker and use the cover story of a sprained wrist to explain his absence from the lineup, little realizing Calvin is delusional enough to believe his own fiction.

Not that Calvin is a loser in everything. He’s a fine Little League coach, a standout softball player and a talented sportscaster. His lifelong ambition to excel in baseball, however, allows no alternative but denial.

Calvin soon falls for a true sports phenom, star volleyballer Tori Jensen (model Michelle Lombardo), playing for her underachieving junior college team to stay close to her terminally ill mom (Terri McMahon). For these postpubescent passages, director Lundgren liberally recycles story elements from Cameron Crowe’s teen-angst classic “Say Anything,” recasting its plotline in sports metaphors as Calvin courts a girl way out of his league, and who is similarly sidelined by problems at home.

Ultimately, of course, the pic’s message consists of learning to abandon unrealistic dreams and accept oneself without bitterness or regret (a particularly timely moral in this scaled-down economy, and thankfully, one that spills over onto Zahn’s Coach Little). The film’s second half is dominated by Zahn’s spectacular drunken downward spiral, as he’s angrily told off by a betrayed Calvin and forced to confront his own bleak past and even bleaker future.

But aside from Zahn, thesping is uneven. Frost fakes a credible if uninspired John Cusack imitation; Lombardo looks great on court but fails to carry any conviction into her romantic scenes. Diedrich Bader scores as Calvin’s softball teammate, while Jane Adams, as Calvin’s sister, is sadly underused.

Film features five heroic slo-mo sports montages too many.

Calvin Marshall

Production

A Broken Sky Films production. (International sales: Archstone Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Produced by Anne Lundgren, Michael Matondi. Executive producer, Mark Cunningham. Directed, written, edited by Gary Lund-gren.

Crew

Camera (color), Patrick Neary; music, John Askew; production designer, Ryan Malmberg; costume designer, Claudia Everett; sound (Dolby Digital), Kent Romney; supervising sound editor, David Raines; re-recording mixer, Mark Server; casting, Christine Sheaks. Reviewed on DVD, New York, Aug. 12, 2010. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Steve Zahn, Alex Frost, Michelle Lombardo, Jane Adams, Jeremy Sumpter, Diedrich Bader, Rosie Thomas, Cynthia Watros, Terri McMahon.

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