Movie review: 'Hardball'

EntertainmentMoviesSportsCrimeBaseballCrime, Law and JusticeJohn Gatins

2 stars (out of 4)

The point of a movie like "Hardball," aside from generating easy-to-cheer-along sports moments, is to build bridges between cultures, as represented here by a white Chicago ticket scalper/problem gambler, played by Keanu Reeves, and the African-American housing-project kids he coaches in baseball.

The idea is that everyone, including the audience, will learn about each other. But when a movie merely reinforces preconceived notions, all bets are off.

"Hardball" is based on a true story -- Daniel Coyle's book about coaching Cabrini-Green kids, "Hardball: A Season in the Projects" -- but you'd never know it didn't spring from someone whose limited knowledge of poor urban kids was gleaned solely from movies.

The kids here may be charming and lovable beneath their rough edges, but in the eyes of director Brian Robbins and writer John Gatins, they're always the other -- people whose experiences are so foreign that the filmmakers and white characters can do little more than gape or wring their hands.

In one scene, Conor O'Malley, Reeves' character, keeps the kids practicing, despite their protests, until darkness falls, and soon we see their point: Jefferson Albert Tibbs (Julian Griffith), the chubby asthmatic kid, walks back to his high rise past a flaming car, a stripped swing set, drug dealers and crack smokers, and then two guys jump him, beat him up and steal his backpack.

Later, as Conor walks a boy down a grimy high-rise hallway, the coach wonders why the folks in the various apartments are all sitting on the floor. The kid explains that everyone sits below window level to avoid bullets.

"What do you do around here for fun?" Conor asks him.

"Play baseball with you," the boy replies.

In other words, if not for this coach, these kids would have nothing going on aside from the misery of living in a war zone.

I wouldn't presume to diminish the hardships of living in public housing, but even under the grimmest circumstances, kids find a way to make their own fun. They're human. By setting these boys (the movie keeps girls and fathers out of sight) up primarily as objects of pity, Robbins and Gatins deny them inner lives while reinforcing white man's-burden stereotypes.

Conor becomes acquainted with the kids after falling deeply in debt by betting on the Bulls. He approaches his investor friend Jimmy (Mike McGlone) for a loan and winds up with a deal to receive $500 a week if he coaches the team as part of a corporate good-will program.

The work is easy at first, given that Conor's coaching method is to sit on the bench and watch the boys swear at each other while they occasionally throw and bat the ball around. When Conor suggests that they cease badmouthing one another, the kids and movie treat these words like divinely inspired wisdom.

These boys barely have enough players to field a team; their uniforms are raggedy shirts, while the other teams in their league have slick outfits. Further emphasizing their underdog status, the movie makes the coach of the best opposing team (D.B. Sweeney, another white guy) particularly obnoxious; he gets one of Conor's players disqualified on a technicality (age) and requests that the pitcher remove his headphones while on the mound. (You might think Conor would have suggested this.)

The league's commissioner, who's black, indicates biased against these guys for no apparent reason. So Conor's boys have little choice but to band together and exceed everyone's expectations.

Mind you, some of the corny bits work (though not the goofy Sammy Sosa moment), and not many mainstream movies put troubled minority children on the screen in any form. The kids are movie-real more than real-real, and their language has been cleaned up to reduce an R rating to a PG-13.Reeves, looking trim, isn't bad either; his early scenes in which he's in trouble with bookies boast some grit, and his angst feels genuine, at least until he seems to go bonkers as he threatens to leave his players in the lurch.

As the kids' teacher and Conor's love interest, Diane Lane has little more to do than to be supportive of the kids and sympathetically stern with Conor, whose wonderful points she somehow can detect beneath his sometimes oafish exterior. But if she's so perceptive, why don't her alarm bells go off when he takes her on a first dinner date to Slugger's?

"Hardball" remains watchable when it's not hitting you like a baseball bat with poignancy. But by the time you've endured all of the shamelessly manipulative plot turns and heart-yanking speeches that close out the movie, all you can do is cry foul.

`Hardball'Directed by Brian Robbins; written by John Gatins, based on the book by Daniel Coyle; photographed by Tom Richmond; edited by Ned Bastille; production designed by Jaymes Hinkle; music by Mark Isham; produced by Tina Nides, Mike Tollin and Robbins. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, language, some violence).

Conor O'Neill ................ Keanu Reeves

Elizabeth Wilkes ............. Diane Lane

Ticky Tobin .................. John Hawkes

Matt Hyland .................. D.B. Sweeney

Jimmy Fleming ................ Mike McGlone

Sterling ..................... Sterling Elijah Brim

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentMoviesSportsCrimeBaseballCrime, Law and JusticeJohn Gatins
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