Movie review, 'The Rookie'

"The Rookie" telegraphs its pitches from the very beginning, when a folksy voiceover speaks of St. Rita, "patron saint of impossible dreams." If you don't know you're about to see a movie in which such dreams are fulfilled, you've walked into the wrong theater.

The rest of us can relax and acknowledge the role of corn in a balanced filmgoing diet. This is a Disney movie, after all, in the old family-friendly sense of the label, though in this case the main character is not a kid but an adult.

Based on the real-life tale of Jim Morris, "The Rookie" tells the inspirational story of a Texas high school science teacher and baseball coach who gets his shot at the big leagues at an age when many players are retiring.

The movie has its "Bull Durham" elements, showing us an older player toiling in the minors alongside young whippersnappers as he awaits a call to the majors. But the tone is closer to Kevin Costner's other baseball movie, "Field of Dreams"; the edges are soft and fuzzy rather than knowing and caustic, and what happens on the field is ultimately less important and emotionally potent than what happens between father and son.

As a kid Jimmy loves playing baseball, but every time he thinks he's settled down with a Little League team, his military father, Jim Sr. (Brian Cox), has to move the family somewhere else. Ultimately, they wind up in a small Texas town where football is the sport of choice and baseball almost doesn't exist.

Jimmy's complaints fall on deaf ears; his father tells him with characteristic bluntness (of the movie as well as Jim Sr.), "There are more important things in life than baseball. The sooner you figure that out, the better." We meet the adult Jimmy (Dennis Quaid) back in small-town Texas years after what we learn was an abortive baseball career; he'd blown out his arm while pitching in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system and underwent multiple surgeries. Now a well-liked teacher and coach, he impulsively airs out a few fastballs to his team's catcher, and lo and behold, the mitt is going "pop!" upon impact.

The team is decidedly lackluster, so the coach makes them a deal: If they win the district championship, he'll give the big leagues another shot.

"The Rookie" is a movie that belies the notion that effective drama hinges on not knowing what's going to happen. Here you often have a good idea of where the action is headed, yet it still pulls you along. You can see why the filmmakers optioned the story from a Sports Illustrated article: It just works.

Quaid has been down the jock road so many times ("Any Given Sunday," "Everybody's All-American," "Tough Enough") that you buy him as Morris without much question. That's a good thing, because at age 47, the actor is 12 years older than Morris was when he made his comeback. (Morris is only 38 now.) The movie's lingering image is Quaid scrunching up his face like he's biting a lemon peel as he uncorks a 98-mph fastball. Quaid plays fierce determination well and shows a nice touch with the father-son dynamics (as he did in "Frequency"). With his own kids Jimmy is warmly paternal, but when he sees Jim Sr., his shoulders slump and he's once again the child seeking fatherly approval.

That said, Quaid's acting has a what-you-see-is-what-you-get quality to it. You don't sense many hidden depths in Jimmy.

The fleshy-faced Cox, in contrast, suggests ambiguity as second nature (his oddly sympathetic pedophile in "L.I.E." being the extreme example), and he makes a strong impression here as a distant disciplinarian whose hard logic is dictated by a coldness that the character seemingly can't control.

Rachel Griffiths, as usual, disappears into her role as Jimmy's wife, Lorri, whose initial unwillingness to support her husband stems less from her not believing in him than from her not wanting to see him hurt and heartbroken all over again. Screenwriter Mike Rich ("Finding Forrester") has rendered some of these early exchanges a bit stilted and underdeveloped - when Lorri complains, "You can't eat dreams," you figure Jimmy would counter that a big-league salary can buy lots of Big Macs - but the family dynamics become richer as the movie progresses.

Director John Lee Hancock, who wrote the screenplays for "A Perfect World" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," makes his big points with little subtly, but he and Rich present some nicely detailed scenes as well: Jimmy trying to gauge his pitch velocity by throwing past a highway patrol car-speed monitor; the Texas townsfolk trying to solve the problem of deer eating the grass seed off the infield; Jimmy changing a baby's diapers at the moment the Tampa Bay Devil Rays scouts are calling him over for his tryout.

The movie also doesn't turn Jimmy's journey into a parade of successes. Life in the minor leagues is no glamour cruise, and in case you didn't notice, Jim Morris never became the next Roger Clemens.

Perhaps the filmmakers' greatest accomplishment is establishing strong feelings of community among the various clusters of characters. The locals feel real rather than like your typical Hollywood small-town yokels, and the high school baseball players are a diverse, likable group rather than a collection of stereotypes.

At its heart, "The Rookie" is a warm movie that plays off of the most basic yearnings: What baseball fan hasn't imagined striding to the mound of a major league stadium and zipping a fastball past a desperately swinging batter? What son hasn't wanted his dad to be proud of him? What father hasn't wanted his son to be proud of him? "The Rookie" may be pushing buttons, but at least they're the right buttons.

3 stars
"The Rookie"

Directed by John Lee Hancock; written by Mike Rich; photographed by John Schwartzman; edited by Eric L. Beason; music by Carter Burwell; produced by Gordon Gray, Mark Ciardi, Mark Johnson. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Friday, March 29. Running time: 2:09. MPAA rating: G.
Jimmy - Dennis Quaid
Lorri - Rachel Griffiths
Joaquin "Wack" Campos - Jay Hernandez
Jimmy's Mother - Beth Grant
Hunter - Angus T. Jones Jim Sr. - Brian Cox

Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.

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