If Biggie Smalls weren’t dead already, certainly the sight and sound of Keanu Reeves murdering his hit “Big Poppa” not once, but twice in “Hardball” would have done the job. For the rest of us, sitting through the schmaltzfest that is “Hardball” amounts to a two-hour torture session that would make one long for the great beyond.
Watching Reeves lord over a boys’ baseball team in a “Bad News Bears”-ish comedy is a horrifying enough prospect, but “Hardball” is even more galling than what the misleading ad campaign sells it as: it’s a teary, inspirational sports drama. But despite having the same early fall berth and also featuring a name star above its title, “Hardball” is no Remember the Titans, the truly uplifting and moving blockbuster that starred Denzel Washington–for reasons that go far beyond the lopsided Keanu vs. Denzel argument.
First and foremost is the lead character of Conor O’Neill. Reeves’ lackluster performance aside (more on that later), Conor, who begins the film as a compulsive gambler deep in debt to loan sharks, is hardly an interesting or appealing “hero.” In exchange for a weekly check, a businessman friend (Mike McGlone) makes Conor coach an inner city little league team, the Kekambas. The usual would-be heartwarming hokum ensues: Conor learns that there’s more to life than sports bets; the kids are inspired to win by Conor.
Or are they? Conor does a lot of things with the Kekambas, but one of them is certainly not coaching. The most he is shown doing during practice sessions is hitting balls to outfielders. He never gives anyone any pointers except that it’s important to show up. Duh. As such the Kekambas’ winning ways are completely their own doing, with very little to no help from Conor. It’s staggering how director Brian Robbins and screenwriter John Gatins adapted a book (by Daniel Coyle) about little league coaching by completely erasing just about all trace of the practice.
So “Hardball” becomes one of those films where the African-Americans make life better for the white man with little to no return, and the balance is thrown even further with one especially manipulative late-inning turn. But Robbins starts making mawkish far earlier than that; any occurrence that can make the slightest tug at a heartstring, such as a player not getting a team T-shirt, is accompanied by a maudlin score cue. The young cast is instructed to pout for maximum effect whenever not hammering home their characters’ single defining quality, e.g. one player has to wear headphones and listen to “Big Poppa” while pitching (hence setting the stage for Reeves’ rickety renditions); one kid who is actually too young to play nonetheless listens to Conor’s sage advice by showing up for every game and practice.
Reeves has turned in awful performances for top-notch directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh, so it’s no shock that he doesn’t do any better for a hack like Robbins. What is surprising is that Robbins appears to have given Reeves complete free reign, for Conor is prone to Keanu-isms that you see the star doing at awards shows and in interviews: the constant head bobbing, the arm-waving. Reeves is also still a block o’ balsa when it comes time to show emotion, whether during the sappiness of the final stretch or in the afterthought of a romantic subplot between Conor and a schoolteacher (Diane Lane, wasted again).
Yet as tempting as it is to pin “Hardball”‘s failure on Reeves, fault must go to the shockingly untalented Robbins, who, after Varsity Blues and Ready to Rumble, continues his streak of wretched sports-tinged movies. It figures that “Hardball”‘s big lesson is about the importance of showing up, for obviously the “Head of the Class” alum owes his directing career to being at the right place at the right time. Who the hell knows wherever and whenever that may have been, but it’s certainly a moment in time cursed by true film fans everywhere.