A cornball, button-pushing “Bad News Bear”-rehash that hauls out every heartstring-pulling trick in the book, the new Keanu Reeves vehicle might have bordered on the embarrassing any other weekend but, in the wake of recent events, strikes precisely the right lightweight note.
Reeves scruffs himself up to play a down and out Chicago gambling addict. He’s bet his way into a corner as the film begins, owing thousands to a menacing thug known only as The Barber as well as the owner of his neighborhood watering hole. Loyalty to his late father keeps the bar owner at bay — just barely — and a yuppie friend who works at a swank financial firm offers him a way out of his other debt: If Keanu will take over as coach of his little league team while he’s out of town on business, the pal will pay him $500 a week under the table.
The prospect of working with a bunch of peewees from one of the windy city’s poorest projects two or three times a week sounds only marginally preferable to having his thumbs broken at first. When he drags himself into the dugout for the team’s first practice, there are echoes of the reluctant coach Tom Hanks played in “A League of Their Own.” Only this time it isn’t the disgruntled manager but his players who talk trash and swear like sailors.
A motley, instantly likable crew, the group is, of course, all ghetto bravado and very little talent. As soon as Reeves bans inter-player dissing on the field and discovers the Walkman-wearing pitching phenom right under his nose, though, the team’s play begins to improve dramatically.
Two of his best players are permitted to take part only on the condition that their coach make sure they play by the rules at school too and that’s where the story’s love interest comes in. Diane Lane costars as a well-intentioned teacher who brings out the best in both the boys and Reeves, inspiring him to get his act together as he works with the team to get it to the top of its game.
The ragtag squad is wall to wall with endearing and highly colorful characters and it’s heartwarming, as always, to watch as perennial losers discover self confidence, a lost soul finds redemption and underdogs gain on the favorites as the championships approach. The story’s an unabashed catalog of feel good cliches but, just when things seem like they couldn’t get more Disney, our young heroes experience a terrible loss as the result of senseless violence.
Not since Bambi’s mother perished in that cartoon blaze, has a family film gotten this dark this suddenly and, just as the goofball sunniness of the story’s first two acts offered a welcome break from the cloud that’s hung over everything and everyone for the past week, the shared solemnity pervading the picture’s final scenes eerily mirrors the country’s current mood. It seems somewhat absurd to point to a movie like this as any sort of metaphor for the tragedy the nation is processing but all the elements are here: great things are achieved when people of disparate backgrounds put aside differences and work together; violence strikes without warning or meaning; loss is followed by shock, then anger, then reflection and holding the whole thing together, the great American metaphor itself- baseball. In the end, play must resume. Life must go on.
You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll experience anxiety and hope for the future of the civilized world. That’s no doubt more than I would have said for this better than average formula fest had I seen it a month ago and maybe had I seen “The Glass House” or “The Closet” this past weekend I would have found provocative subtexts and resonances in them too. Who can say?
I do know that smiles have been hard to come by. “Hardball” has an emergency supply should you find yourself in need of one.