A minor-league comedy-drama about Major League Baseball hopefuls, “Summer Catch” is a modestly amusing trifle that likely will score a few runs in the megaplexes before heading into extra innings in vidstore dugouts. With its haphazard mix of boisterously crude comedy, romantic entanglements, class-conscious clashes and intensely competitive hardball, pic plays like it was inspired by a latenight channel surf through “Major League,” “Bull Durham,” “One Crazy Summer” and some late-’50s wrong-side-of-the-tracks meller. Combo of elements conceivably could draw a wider demographic than most recent product toplining Freddie Prinze Jr., which is what he needs if he’s to make the tricky transition from teen-mag fave to the big leagues.
Prinze is credible on and off the mound as Ryan Dunne, a promising pitcher who self-destructed during his short-lived college career, after which he returns to Cape Cod to work with his gruff father (Fred Ward) in a lawn-care business catering to upscale families with summer residences. Ryan preps for his last, best shot at pro stardom as a member of the Chatham A’s, local branch of the storied Cape Cod Baseball League, coached by grizzled vet John Schiffner (Brian Dennehy).
Most other tyros on the team of unpaid “amateurs” are former college all-stars, many of whom — like Eric Van Leemer (Corey Pearson), a cocky pitcher with peroxided hair and a penchant for tattoos — already have attracted the attention of Major League teams. Ryan is the only local in the lineup, but he’s determined to prove he has the right stuff as a flame-throwing lefty.
However, Ryan’s blue-collar background works against him when he’s off the field pitching woo to Tenley Parrish (Jessica Biel), a beautiful Vassar grad with an uptight father (Bruce Davison).
“Summer Catch” devotes several innings to developing Ryan’s romance with Tenley, and to sketching out his sometimes contentious relationships with his hard-drinking father and blunt-spoken older brother (Jason Gedrick). But the laughs flow more freely — and the pic is more engaging — whenever it shifts focus back to the ball games and ballplayers.
Working from an episodic script credited to Kevin Falls and John Gatins, first-time feature helmer Mike Tollin (who also directed docu “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream”) does a briskly efficient job of generating genuine suspense during Ryan’s moments on the mound, despite overall predictability of the plot.
Between games, Biel demonstrates an arresting and ingratiating screen presence. As the resident eminences gris, Ward and Dennehy do more for “Summer Catch” than it ever does for them. A minor quibble: Pic conspicuously grinds to a halt whenever either actor gives a self-consciously “dramatic” pep talk to Prinze.
When it comes to funny business, Tollin’s got game, and he makes the most of some talented supporting players on his bench. Standouts include Matthew Lillard as Billy Brubaker, a wild and crazy catcher; Brittany Murphy as Dede, a cheerfully slatternly local girl; and an unbilled Beverly D’Angelo as pic’s stand-in for Susan Sarandon’s “Bull Durham” character, a sultry older woman who “coaches” promising players like second baseman Mickey “Domo” Dominguez (Wilmer Valderrama). John C. McGinley also appears unbilled as a pro baseball scout.
Pic effectively employs Southport, N.C., as a substitute for story’s Cape Cod locale. Production values are mostly unremarkable, although George Fenton’s score hits the right notes of anxiety or melancholy whenever the soundtrack isn’t throbbing with some generic rock ditty.
Baseball fans will appreciate pic’s clever touches of verisimilitude. Former college players initially are uneasy with wooden bats — they’re used to swinging aluminum — and the upbeat fantasy of pic’s coda is playfully doused with a splash of cold-water realism. Real-life baseball greats such as Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron and play-by-play announcer Curt Gowdy appear throughout, lending at least a modicum of authenticity to the formulaic hijinx.