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MOVIE REVIEWS : The Girls of Summer

TIMES FILM CRITIC

To borrow the inevitable sports metaphor, “A League of Their Own” (citywide) is a contender that can’t hold onto a lead. Blessed with a pleasing comedy concept and the writers, director and cast who know how to make the most of it for most of the picture, “League” finally can’t resist the siren song of unbridled sentimentality. Though amusing enough to avoid absolutely drowning in schmaltz, it’s sad to see a film with potential lose its way in the late innings.

Inspired by a PBS documentary with the same name, “League” is based on the exploits of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, founded in 1943 by Chicago Cubs owner and chewing gum magnate P.K. Wrigley as an emergency stop-gap measure in case the major leagues had to shut down because of World War II.

Featuring teams with names like the Fort Wayne Daisies and the Grand Rapids Chicks, the league was enough of a sensation to last until 1954 and provide a lifetime of memories to the adventurous women who confounded the era’s stereotypes by playing ball with as much spirit and skill as the men.

With a premise with built-in audience appeal, plus a cast that includes Geena Davis, Madonna and Tom Hanks, it is hard to see what could possibly go wrong with “League,” and for awhile nothing major does. Scripted by the able team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell (“Night Shift,” “Splash,” “Parenthood”) and directed by Penny Marshall, whose “Big” was the first film directed by a woman to break the hallowed $100-million box-office mark, “League,” despite its share of obvious jokes, starts out fresh and funny.

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After a tepid prologue involving an aged Dottie Hinson (Davis’ character, played by an older actress with Davis’ voice dubbed in) trying to decide whether to go to a baseball reunion, “League” drifts back to 1943 Willamette, Ore., and two spunky sisters, the married Dottie, whose husband is off in the war, and Kit Keller (Lori Petty).

Both women play softball for the local Lukash Dairy team, but it is Dottie who is the superior player, as well as much given to offering well-meaning advice, which a jealous Kit always ignores. Into their lives comes Ernie (Cappy) Capadino, a scout for the newly formed league, offering them the serious sum of $75 a week to sign on. Dottie is dubious, but when Cappy refuses to take Kit unless Dottie goes along, both sisters take the plunge.

As played by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Jon Lovitz, the deadpan Capadino, given to droll witticisms about farm life, not only provides the cleverest performance in the film, but also sets the amiably funny tone of its first half.

As we watch the women gather, everyone from Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), the homeliest of sluggers, to former dance-hall hostess Mae Mordabito (yes, that’s Madonna under that jet-black hair), it’s difficult to avoid rooting for the success of their team, the Rockford Peaches, warming to the players’ individual successes and enjoying the on-the-field montages like the fans we have somehow become.

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Selected by candy bar king Walter Harvey (the always droll Garry Marshall, Penny’s brother) to manage this team is Jimmy Dugan (Hanks), a former major league home run king who has metamorphosed into a falling-down drunk. Refusing to even consider the possibility that these women know how to play ball, Dugan begins his tenure in an alcoholic haze, and one of “League’s” entertainments is watching the unsurprising process of this blind drunk seeing the light.

Though Hanks seems a little stiff in his role at first, too willing to play the cliche drunkard, he soon loosens up, and some of his tirades, especially one on the impropriety of crying in baseball, are funny and memorable. And the women in the cast, all of whom took baseball lessons until they were black and blue, exhibit a winning and playful camaraderie.

The clear standout is Davis, a much-publicized replacement for Debra Winger, who handles herself exceptionally well as the graceful team leader, giving the film a perhaps better performance than it deserves. As for Madonna, whose “All the Way Mae” character is, despite what the key art indicates, very much of a supporting role, she manages to find time to do some fancy jitterbugging while getting as much out of the part as the script allows.

Lightweight entertaining as all this is, director Marshall and her screenwriters have grander ambitions for the PG-rated “League” and that is just about the film’s undoing. For one thing, they seem determined to bring a note of realistic conflict into a film that was doing very well without it, so more emphasis has been placed on the rivalry between the sisters than it can comfortably bear, forcing a resolution that is equal parts unconvincing and unsatisfying.

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More than this, Marshall, who clearly fell in love with the real-life spunky models for these characters, could not resist turning the film into a teary tribute to them. So she has tacked on not one but two overly sentimental codas, the first showing aged versions of the fictional Rockford Peaches gathering for that reunion, the second an abbreviated documentary peek at the real veterans knocking the ball around at Cooperstown.

This extended tribute is certainly well-meaning, but its unfortunate bathos brings the film to an absolute dead stop, underlines its weakest points and makes you question what possessed you to enjoy what came before. It also serves as a reminder that excessive sentimentality was a major failing of Marshall’s “Awakenings” and was present, though in manageable form, in “Big” as well. It may have been inevitable, but it’s still too bad that “A League of Their Own” couldn’t leave well enough alone.

‘A League of Their Own’

Tom Hanks: Jimmy Dugan

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Geena Davis: Dottie Hinson

Madonna: Mae Mordabito

Lori Petty: Kit Keller

Jon Lovitz: Ernie Capadino

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David Strathairn: Ira Lowenstein

Garry Marshall: Walter Harvey

A Parkway production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Penny Marshall. Producers Robert Greenhut, Elliot Abbott. Executive producer Penny Marshall. Screenplay Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandell, based on a story by Kim Wilson & Kelly Candaele. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. Editor George Bowers. Costumes Cynthia Flynt. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Bill Groom. Art director Tim Galvin. Set decorator George DeTitta Jr. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG.

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