Everyone wins in `The Rookie'

Review: A would-be sports star gets injured - but, in true Walt Disney fashion, he finds triumph in so many other ways.

March 30, 2002|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Any sports movie has a dual task: to simulate the game of choice (football, hockey, golf) and to unfurl its characters' journeys against that backdrop. Ex-ballplayer and first-time director Ron Shelton pulled it off in Bull Durham (1988), a film whose world was so steeped in authentic detail we could care about the characters. But hockey fans cringed at the sight of Rob Lowe's efforts to skate in Youngblood (1986), and seamheads winced at the double debacle of William Bendix (1948) and John Goodman (1992) taking maladroit cuts as the Babe.

But what about The Rookie, Disney's rags-to-riches baseball drama that opened nationwide yesterday? In it, Dennis Quaid stars as the real-life character of Jim Morris, a man whose prodigious pitching talent was ruined years ago by a shoulder injury. Morris has settled into an ordinary life in a West Texas town, Big Lake, chafing at his roles as chemistry teacher, baseball coach and hapless dad.

For starters - no pun intended - Dennis Quaid can pitch. Every night, lit by the headlights of his rusting Ford pickup, his character soft-tosses against a backstop at the high school. Over and over, he toes the rubber with authority, winds up with an easy, half leg-kick and follows through with a kinesthetically perfect finish. Kudos to ex-big-leaguer Jim Gott, the consultant who helped Quaid sculpt his bigtime delivery. We have a movie.

Director John Lee Hancock finds other details that anchor this story, affirming its credibility. Panoramic views of dusty flatland where, long ago, only oil prospectors and nuns dared to venture, evoke the plains surrounding the ironically named Big Lake. The baseball team, the Big Lake Owls, must practice in a gravel pit (the evil high school favors football), and the rising dust is palpable. Morris' scruffy Jiffy Lube cap seems just about right. A later close-up of an automatic sprinkler reveals the lush green of the field they'll finally get to play on.

Nonetheless, enough elements in The Rookie ring so hollow that it can be hard to stay in the ballpark. Morris' science class and baseball team love him, laugh at all his jokes and crack wise - even though the players have endured three straight 1-16 seasons under him. Jim's relationship with his dad, problematic in his youth, miraculously heals. Hitters actually smile as they swing the bat.

Indeed, too much comes too easily in The Rookie. After his team discovers, to its unanimous glee, that Coach can bring it at 98 mph (even in his heyday, he only fired 86), they learn to hit him in batting practice, and next thing you know, they're reeling off the wins. In the time it takes to go out and buy a bag of popcorn, they're a contender for the district finals.

In true Disney fashion, there's no doubt about who's going to win it all. The suspense lies, instead, in Quaid's guilty, secret belief that he could still make it as a big-league pitcher if given a chance. For years in Big Lake - encouraged by his overworked wife (Rachel Griffiths) and three kids - he thinks his dream is a fantasy. As he practices, and Willie Nelson sings on the soundtrack, "There's Nothing I Can Do About It Now," it comes down to a choice whether - for the sake of his own karma - he should, or could, forget the dream and stay in Big Lake or forsake his family life and go for it all.

The film's ending is utterly predictable, of course, but that's not really the point. It is that hope can degrade into regret, that loss can resurrect victory, that fate and free will, as ever, cross swords. In part, too, it's about demystifying the game: At Morris' moment of triumph, his lifetime pinnacle, he must change the baby's diapers.

The Rookie hews to the real details just enough to keep us in the game. The Disney folks take it from there. The craggy Morris comes in from the bullpen like Rocky climbing the steps to the art museum. It's a saccharine moment, but one the craggy Quaid has earned.

More fitting, because it's more basic to the game, Morris enters the locker room one day pounding his glove. He flashes his one resplendent grin in the movie and speaks a line that has resonance. "You know what we get to do today, Brooks?" the old man asks a player half his age. "We get to play some baseball!"

SUN SCORE

**1/2 (two-and-one-half stars)

The Rookie

Starring Dennis Quaid and Rachel Griffiths

Directed by John Lee Hancock

Rated G

Released by Walt Disney Pictures

Running time 120 minutes

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