'The Sandlot': nothing more than pine tar nostalgia

April 07, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Sandlot" is essentially a $15 million "Our Gang" comedy, and it has exactly the amount of warmth, spontaneity, nostalgia and humor that such a huge amount of money can buy: none.

If awards were given for phoniness, this one would retire the prize. It's one of those treacly plastic jobs that looks back on a childhood no human could ever have lived, in a tone of such exaggerated cuteness that by contrast it makes the Disney oeuvre seem neo-realist.

Set in the baby-boomer Camelot year of 1962, it's about a "new kid" named Scotty (Tom Guiry) who moves into a San Fernando Valley neighborhood where his utter unfamiliarity with baseball soon earns for him the sobriquet "geek" among an ethnically mixed group of otherwise generic boys. He doesn't get that you have to move the mitt to the ball in order to catch the ball. Where'd he move from, Mars?

The little irritations begin immediately. The neighborhood kids are infatuated with Babe Ruth. In 1962? A year after Roger Maris broke the Babe's record and four years after the Dodgers gave the West Coast its first taste of the Bigs? The Dodgers aren't even mentioned in a year when they lost the pennant by one game to the Giants (the hated Giants!) and Tommy Davis hit .346! Unreal or idiotic?

Next, Scotty's goal is to be the ninth man to play on that neighborhood team -- that only plays itself. So why would "nine" be the magic number? If one's at bat, you'd still only have eight in the field, and if the bases were loaded, you'd only have five. Duh! Does anybody here know how to play this game? For a movie that pretends to adore baseball, this one knows absolutely nothing about the game and it wears its ignorance proudly, like a merit badge.

Scotty's dreary ordeal is solved when team leader Benny (Mike Vitar), in an act of otherwise unexplainable compassion, fungoes him a perfect fly that lands in his mitt as if it's directed by radar. He's magically transformed into a real live boy; he didn't even have to rescue his father from a whale's belly.

The rest of the movie drifts through anecdotal material long on manipulation and short on feeling: a caper at the pool that earns one kid his first French kiss, a "night game" by the lights of the Fourth of July fireworks (impossible, actually), and various adventures in a treehouse that looks like it was sublet from the Swiss Family Robinson. It couldn't have cost a cent less than $3 million.

What story there is revolves around a mythically huge dog who lurks behind the left field fence and Scotty's unbearable stupidity in letting the boys play with his stepfather's trophy baseball autographed by Babe Ruth! That ball ends up in the yard where the dog slobbers industrial strength phlegm on it, and we get a good 40 minutes of attempted rescue-by-gizmo of the sort that is patently unbelievable just as it is patently trite.

It's a good thing Hal Roach, who founded the Our Gang comedies, died peacefully last year; "The Sandlot" would have killed him like a sniper bullet!

Well, obviously it does no good to tick off minor idiocies such as these. The major tick is director David Mickey Evan's front-load of sentimentality and slapstick on materials that just can't bear them. You feel as if you're being smothered in cotton candy by a director obsessed with infantility and who cannot bear to face the reality of childhood. Worse, he also imposes '90s-style retro baseball nostalgia on '60s baseball culture in a way that is conceptually self-contradictory.

This is definitely a post-"Field of Dreams" movie, at home in an era that specializes in building ersatz old parks, like the honey at Camden Yards. I love that place, even if it's more theme park than ball yard (I also love theme parks). But "The Sandlot" isn't a theme park or a ball yard; it's a con job.

"The Sandlot"

Starring Tom Guiry and Mike Vitar.

Directed by David Mickey Evans.

Released by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rated PG.

... **

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