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