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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Hardball

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane
Director: Brian Robbins
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: September 2001
Genres: Sports, Drama, Comedy

*Also starring: Julian Griffith, A. Delon Ellis, Jr., Michael B. Jordan, John Hawkes, D.B. Sweeney, Trevor Morgan, Graham Beckel, Mike McGlone

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2 stars out of 4

If you're feeling the least bit cynical, then you may wish to skip "Hardball." The film, about a troubled man who finds redemption by coaching a group of little boys from the ghetto, bends over backwards to touch your emotional buttons. In fact, something occurs late in the movie that is so shamelessly manipulative that some viewers may deem it patently offensive. Still, I found "Hardball" rewarding because, beneath the sappy music and formulaic story, the core of the film rang true.

Keanu Reeves plays Conor O'Neill, a compulsive gambler $11,000 in debt to a pair of angry bookies. He wanders from one Chicago neighborhood bar to another, trying to avoid those to whom he owes money while searching for someone to front him enough cash for the next bet. O'Neill is utterly lost the only solution he can see to the problems brought on by his gambling is yet more gambling.

In interviews and at public appearances, Keanu Reeves is notorious for stammering and looking ill at ease. As O'Neill, he takes that hesitancy and discomfort and channels it into the character. His performance is very effective, working against expectations for the leading man in a feel-good movie. His O'Neill is not inherently noble; he finds redemption only by stumbling into it.

The opportunity to live a life that extends beyond himself comes from an acquaintance that offers O'Neill $500 a week to take over his position as coach for the Kekambas, a Little League team from the projects. As with most characters in this genre, he doesn't like working with kids and has no interest in the job, but his desperation for cash forces him to accept the deal.

Even more unsure of himself than usual, he meets the team. Thankfully, the young actors playing the Kekambas come off not as stereotypes, but simply as ordinary boys living in hellish surroundings. Particularly memorable are Jefferson (Julian Griffith), a kid determined to work around his asthma and extra pounds, Miles (Alan Ellis Jr.), who listens to a tape of his favorite song in order to set his pitching rhythm, and brothers Kofi (Michael Perkins) and G-Baby (DeWayne Warren), whose devotion to one another is touching, but never overplayed.

In fact, nothing about the boys is overplayed. They are refreshingly natural, making it even more painful to watch them navigate the grounds of the projects like small soldiers looking for sanctuary on enemy turf. They don't treat O'Neill as some great white savior, either. Rather, they are simply glad to have an adult, any adult, willing to organize safe activities for them.

Once the coach/team dynamics are established, the story follows the obvious path, even providing a dedicated teacher (Diane Lane) to serve as moral compass and potential love interest to O'Neill. Only the verisimilitude of O'Neill and the boys keep the story from becoming insufferable. And then comes the incident that really pushes the envelope. I won't reveal it here you'll have to decide whether it is a fair representation of a tragic part of ghetto life, a cheap, cruel ploy to wring tears from the audience at any cost, or both.

The credits for the film list it as being "inspired by" the book, "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," by Daniel Coyle, which followed the 1991 founding of a baseball league for kids in Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green housing project by two men: one black and one white. Bob Muzikowski, a recovering addict turned Christian and Al Carter, a government employee specializing in gang relations, spearheaded the project, although they squabbled about virtually everything. Carter, eager to celebrate the boys' racial heritage, grew increasingly uncomfortable with middle-class white men coaching black children. In 1993, Muzikowski charged Carter with misappropriating funds from the project, while Carter was busy forming another league.

Just a few days ago, a federal judge refused Muzikowski's request to block the opening of "Hardball." Muzikowski is suing Paramount Pictures, claiming that the O'Neill character defames him, and that the boys' cursing in the movie is also defamatory, because such behavior is not allowed by the league. At this point, the judge is siding with Paramount's contention that the film is clearly identified as fiction and protected by the First Amendment.

Indeed, "Hardball" is clearly fiction, and pretty cheesy fiction at that. But, thanks to the performances of Reeves and the boys, and the stark depiction of life in the projects, there is enough substance in the movie to warrant a viewing. As I write these words on my laptop computer in my cozy middle-class living room, precious human beings continue their struggle to survive in the projects. Any film that reminds us of such inequities deserves to be shown.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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