It's only fitting that "The Rookie" tells the true story of an athlete who achieved improbable success, because this is a film that overcomes considerable odds itself.
Against all expectations, the Dennis Quaid-starring "Rookie" turns out to be an unapologetically emotional film that doesn't make you gag, one that manages to be sentimental without turning into a shameless wallow.
As described in Sports Illustrated and in a column by Times sportswriter Bill Plaschke, the saga of pitcher Jim Morris defies plausibility. A 35-year-old West Texas high school science teacher and coach whose baseball dreams had ended 12 years earlier, Morris became the oldest major league rookie in decades after being goaded to try out by his players. The Walt Disney organization, never one to miss a marketing trick, is pushing "Rookie" as being from "the studio that brought you 'Remember the Titans.'" This may be a crafty sales technique ("Titans" was a considerable success), but it is regrettably misleading as well. With its old-fashioned feeling, quiet confidence and an almost unheard-of G rating, "Rookie" has more in common with something like "October Sky" than the excessively shameless and simplistic "Titans."
No one, of course, should expect an austere, somber piece of work from director John Lee Hancock and writer Mike Rich. "The Rookie" is not above providing assorted Hallmark moments about following your dream, or casting the cutest kid imaginable (Angus T. Jones) as the Morrises' 8-year-old son, Hunter. The film in general promotes the pleasant fantasy that the world is basically a decent place where events and people right themselves if given half a chance.
Yet what characterizes "The Rookie" is that this fantasy is largely honestly earned. Both debuting director Hancock, who wrote the Clint Eastwood-Kevin Costner film "A Perfect World," and screenwriter Rich, whose feature debut was the treacly "Finding Forrester," have managed not to push too hard here. They've given "The Rookie" a lovely, relaxed feeling that makes us happy to be in this film's company while allowing us to trust that it won't muck things up with glibness or excess.
Also helping to keep everything in balance is the cast, starting with Dennis Quaid, a Texas native himself and able as always to project a rugged, effortless decency. The equally reliable Rachel Griffiths plays his wife, Lorri, and the protean Brian Cox, memorable in darker roles ranging from "Manhunter" to "L.I.E.," brings the right touch of implacability to Morris' unbending father, Jim Sr. Even the smaller parts, like the players on Morris' high school team, have been smartly cast by Ronna Kress.
After a brief introduction establishing Big Lake, Texas, as a place smiled on by "St. Rita, the patron saint of impossible dreams," "The Rookie" breaks its story into a trio of dovetailing sections, each of which deals with different kinds of dreams.
Up first is an extended flashback revealing Jim Morris' childhood as a Navy brat forced to move frequently as a consequence of his father's job as a Navy recruiter. The senior Morris is oblivious to, if not actually contemptuous of, his son's dreams of athletic glory: "There are more important things in life than baseball," he growls, "and the sooner you figure that out, the better."
The Morrises' last move takes them to Big Lake, a football-crazy town that barely knows baseball exists. There we pick up the adult Jim Morris, who is happily married and largely content with his job as a science teacher-baseball coach. Largely, but not totally.
For Morris, whose minor league career ended after four shoulder operations, still goes out late at night and throws hard at a deserted backstop. His childhood dream, we see, is still eating at him, and the look on his face as he lets the ball go--faster, it turns out, than he knows--shows how much bottling up that ambition has cost him.
When Morris chides his team after a lopsided loss, making the classic "you quit on me, and worse, you quit on yourselves" speech, and talks to them about not giving up on their dreams, the kids challenge him about giving up on his. Finally, a pact is made: If his perennially losing team gets to the state playoffs, Morris will go to a major league tryout. (Apparently this really did happen.)
It doesn't take a soothsayer to figure out what happens from here on in, but "The Rookie" doesn't shortchange the difficulties involved for Morris, his wife, his team, even his estranged father. The pleasure of a film like this is not in wondering where it's going to go, but in knowing its exact trajectory. Getting us to pull for a foregone conclusion as if the outcome was in serious doubt is no small sleight of hand.
MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: family friendly.
Jay Hernandez...Joaquin "Wack" Campos
Beth Grant...Jimmy's mother
Angus T. Jones...Hunter
Brian Cox...Jim Sr.
Walt Disney Pictures presents a 98 MPH Productions production, released by Buena Vista Pictures. Director John Lee Hancock. Producers Gordon Gray, Mark Ciardi, Mark Johnson. Executive producer Philip Steuer. Screenplay Mike Rich. Cinematography John Schwartzman. Editor Eric L. Beason. Costumes Bruce Finlayson. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Barry Robison. Art director Kevin Constant. Set decorator Barbara Munch. Running time 2 hours, 9 minutes.
In general release.
Starring Dennis Quaid, the emotional story about a late-blooming pitcher's improbable but true success never pushes too hard.
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