MOVIE REVIEW : 'Rookie of the Year' Squanders Chance for an Extra-Base Hit

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's a movie-making knack we might call "The Gift for the Plausible Absurd." Simply put, it's the quality that enables some filmmakers to make us believe in giant lovelorn apes, adorable stranded extraterrestrials, the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City and talking mules, dogs, cats and caterpillars. Canny pros can take this baloney and make us both swallow and love it.

That's the quality "Rookie of the Year" (citywide) really needs. And doesn't have.

A children's baseball fantasy/comedy about a 12-year-old pitching phenom who puts the Chicago Cubs in the pennant race, this movie starts promisingly, generates some laughs and goodwill, and introduces likable actors.

Among them: youngster Thomas Ian Nichols, whose smile is readier than Ally Sheedy's, as phenom Henry Rowengartner; Gary Busey as our old pal, the gutsy, crusty over-the-hill vet pitcher; Eddie Bracken as a dotty owner; director Daniel Stern as an even dottier pitching coach; Albert Hall as the manager who can never get Rowengartner's name right; Amy Morton as a baseball fan's dream mom--and even John Candy, popping up unbilled as Chubby Cubbie Jack Brickhouse's spiritual successor in the Cub broadcasting booth.

Then it squanders them all.

Children, I suspect, are its likeliest potential fans. And children need rationales less than the rest of us. They'll accept a flying elephant even without the ears and the magic feather.

In this case, writer Sam Harper has a likely explanation for a kid's sudden pitching prowess. Henry breaks his arm, gets his ligaments tightened in some weird way and-- voila!-- comes at us with a flamethrower 105 m.p.h. deadly accurate fastball that no one can hit. Henry's magical arm isn't tough to take. Neither is the major league interest in it. After all, putting the Cubs back in the World Series takes as much gift for the Plausibly Absurd as anything.

But the world built around the arm is sketchy, flat, unresonant. We don't really meet anyone on the Cubs besides the front office, the manager, the pitching coach and that feisty old vet--who immediately starts a convenient romance with Henry's mom. We don't meet anyone on the other teams either, beyond a bearded monster-nemesis and Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Pedro Guerrero, who show up for some cameo whiffs. (We'll never know how current top hitters Andres Galarraga and John Olerud would have fared with Henry.)

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The famous Cub Bleacher Bums, who might have coughed up a few humorous oddballs, are oddly silent. Henry's child-buddies get ticked at him for not spending more time in their leaky old boat--when they'd more likely be besieging him for box seats and bragging him up to everyone they knew. Even Henry's signing is peculiar. He's publicized to the skies and becomes the fans' darling despite accumulating no record anywhere, even in Little League. In the sport that spawns more statistic junkies than any other, he's put on the field solely on the basis of fastball speed and one perfect strike he throws from the centerfield bleachers.

The phrase "by the numbers" was invented for the way Harper crafts this script. After coming up with a good notion, opening and close, he simply fills up the middle innings with the detritus of several decades of TV sitcoms and high-concept kid movies.

It's probably director Stern's own performance as the demented, asymmetrically side-burned pitching coach Brickma--a bizarre-acting guy whose eye-rolling instructions and propensity for locking himself in closets apparently stems from a beaning--that best shows "Rookie's" weakness. Stern doesn't rein himself in, but he doesn't push himself to memorable paroxysms either. He simply shows up regularly, acts pointlessly crazy and then waits for his next cue.

Fittingly, for a movie whose star is a late-inning relief pitcher, "Rookie of the Year" (MPAA-rated PG) has a strong finish: an all-stops-out Cub-thumping fairy tale of a climax, with Bill Conti trumpets blaring. But, by then, perhaps only the kids in the audience will be able to damn all plausibility and embrace the absurd.

'Rookie of the Year'

Thomas Ian Nichols: Henry Rowengartner

Gary Busey: Chet Steadman

Albert Hall: Martinella

Amy Morton: Mary Rowengartner

A 20th Century Fox presentation of a Robert Harper production. Director Daniel Stern. Producer Robert Harper. Executive producers Jack Brodsky, Irby Smith. Screenplay by Sam Harper. Cinematographer Jack Green. Editors Donn Cambern, Raja Gosnell. Costumes Jay Hurley. Music Bill Conti. Production design Steven Jordan. Art director William Arnold. With John Candy, Stern. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG.

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