I want to believe in the redemptive power of baseball as much as the next person, but I need more than the say-so of a Hollywood screenwriter.
Hardball is as shallow and manipulative a movie as any that come to mind. It's nothing more than a mawkish feel-gooder about a down-on-his-luck white guy put in charge of a bunch of down-on-their-luck black kids who only want to play baseball. Then - surprise! surprise! - both parties bring out the best in each other, their luck changes, and all's well with the world. All's well, that is, until a final heartbreaking tragedy tests everyone's mettle.
Keanu Reeves, a better actor than his reputation or roles give him credit for, is Conor O'Neill, a chronic gambler who, to pay off his debts, is forced to coach a bunch of inner-city Chicago kids struggling to become a baseball team. Of course he doesn't want to do it, but when he realizes how bad off the kids are and sees that he really can make a difference, his heart expands exponentially, and the baseballs start flying.
That's all that needs be said about the plot; I'll bet it's pretty close to the original treatment offered by screenwriter John Gatins, who also wrote the equally shallow Summer Catch.
Sure, some of the movie is affecting, especially a scene where O'Neal takes the kids to their first big-league game and they actually see their hero, Sammy Sosa, up close. But even there, the appeal to our emotions is so ham-fisted, we feel more embarrassed than affected.
So many buttons are pushed, so many stereotypes touched on and cliches revisited, that it's not hard to predict what will happen, or even when: Twenty minutes into the film, it's time for the team's most taciturn player to develop a wicked curve ball. At 40 minutes, it's time for the chubby asthmatic player to have an attack. At 60 minutes, it's time for the kid's white teacher to give O'Neill a BIG SPEECH about how these kids already had enough disappointment in their lives, so he dare not let them down.
Hardball isn't a movie with a story to tell; it's one with a schedule to keep.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane
Directed by Brian Robbins
Rated PG-13 (language, violence)
Released by Paramount Pictures
Running time 102 minutes
Sun score *1/2