A a time when the cachet of talk therapy continues on its long slow downward spiral (so much more time-consuming, and déclassé, than the mood-altering drugs marketed by Big Pharma), movies about the wonders of baring your soul to a doctor who’s been paid to care are not exactly in high demand. HBO, of course, did its bit to stir up the drama of therapy with “The Sopranos” and “In Treatment.” But it’s now a different world from the one where ordinary people once sought out movies like “Ordinary People.” When you watch “The Phenom,” about a superstar Major League rookie pitcher who is having control issues, you think you’re in for a baseball story, but it’s really a movie about how a guy who throws five wild pitches in one inning needs to heal on the inside.
Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), just out of high school, can serve up a 98-mile-an-hour fastball, but he’s a mess. After his wild-pitch debacle, he’s sent down to the minors, but the team that drafted him wants to make good on its investment. And so they call in Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a sports therapist so celebrated that he was once on the cover of Time magazine. The movie opens on an early session between Hopper and Mobley, a mensch in a cardigan sweater who talks a good game. He knows just how to slip in a flattering comparison between Hopper and Sandy Koufax, and he does his best to explore why the kid, instead of concentrating on the mound, started to tune into the far-away voice of a soda-pop vendor. Hopper, though, isn’t really buying. He’s played by Johnny Simmons, whose big-eyed baby face belies that Hopper is a buttoned-up prodigy, a slightly blank creature of his era who doesn’t trust the inner life.
The movie flashes back to Hopper’s senior year, when he’s the number-one-ranked pitching prospect in the nation. His problems don’t seem all that extreme (a teacher who nags him about taking his studies seriously, a girlfriend who doesn’t think baseball is all that), but then daddy shows up. He’s a drug dealer who has just gotten out of prison, with no apparent plans to alter his career choice, and he’s played by Ethan Hawke in a ’70s-greaser flattop and the usual spray of tattoos, one of which might as well read, “I, and I alone, am the explanation for all of this boy’s conflicts and difficulties.” Hawke, who has been trying to work more and more on the high wire (he gave a brilliant and very un-Hawke-ish performance as Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue”), is too good an actor to make Hopper Sr. a less than authentic presence. He gives him the aggressively off-kilter, defensive rhythms of a macho loser criminal who is sealed inside his bubble of dickwad anger. But his attitude toward his son is so openly abusive — he calls him a wuss, beans him with a beer can, and tears his pitching to shreds, all out of transparent jealousy — that when Hopper’s mother (Alison Elliott) arrives home and treats the marriage as if it were still a marriage, we think there’s a mistake in the script. Hawke’s dangerous lout of a father and husband is a plot device more than he is a character.
It’s not necessary, of course, for “The Phenom” to be an all-out sports drama, but writer-director Noah Buschel sets up the rare opportunity to explore what makes a jock tick, then doesn’t follow through. You never truly feel as if you’re inside the head and heart of a baseball player. Instead, the overwhelming quality of Hopper’s daddy issues just makes him a Guy Who Doesn’t Believe In Himself, and will he get over it, and if so, how? There’s one odd but definitely of-its-moment scene in which Hopper, after having Googled his famous shrink, righteously pelts him with all the unadmirable things he’s learned about him, like the fact that one of his most famous clients committed suicide, which spurred the doc into an alcoholic descent. The scene comes off as the film’s way of saying, “Take that, psychiatric-industrial complex! You shrinks are human too!” They certainly are, but that’s still a shaky point on which to hang the emotional crux of your movie when the promise of therapy is more or less the only salvation that it has offered. If “The Phenom” were a pitch, it would be a change-up, one that doesn’t land anywhere near the strike zone.