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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

There are many reasons that a man will gamble compulsively. The most obvious one is that he wants to make money more quickly than he can in the stock market. A second possibility is that placing high-stake bets whether in a card game or on a sporting event gives him a rush that he simply cannot get on his job or at home. Psychologists, however, point out that given the losses suffered by the large majority of such speculators, they must have an unconscious desire to lose--because they dislike their very reflections in the mirror and regularly fight their own rational nature in order to inflict punishment on themselves. This third and most intriguing judgment forms the basis of Brian Robbins's "Hardball," a film based on Daniel Coyle's novel with the more pretentious name, "A Season in the Projects," adapted for the screen by John Gatins. "Hardball," which highlights the acting talents of Keanu Reeves as the sort of character he was born to play, deals with a loser, Conor O'Neill, who becomes a winner not by going through a 12-step religious program or by lying on the couch while a bored professional collects $125 an hour. He gets to like himself by losing himself in the service of others, specifically by coaching an urban Little League team of black kids living in a tough Chicago housing project.

The most obvious statement the reasonably perceptive moviegoer can make about the film is that it is cranked out by a Hollywood formula team, taking no chances but rather giving the audience what it wants--a guy who is suffering, goes through an unorthodox rehab program, becoming a winner by converting a group of mildly motivated kids into a victorious ball team. You don't have to ask whether these pre-teens will win the state championship or whether they will receive spanking new uniforms, courtesy of a community that takes an interest in the underdog. To make this sort of movie without following the guidelines of, say, Adam Sandler's winning albeit more comedic ways in "Waterboy," could cut into studio profits. But darn it: these youngsters do get to draw a tear or two from even a cynical spectator in the movie seats even if they do not get to use a word naughtier than "bitch" or take any action that would lose for them the sympathy of their viewers. Formulaic this may be, but at least Brian Robbins is directing a work that is devoid of misanthropy and, given recent events in New York and Washington, this may be just what the doctor ordered.

Conor O'Neill (Keanu Reeves) is down on his luck. Owing gambling debts to a bartender and others, he makes the usual mistake of playing double-or-nothing, seeking to erase the arrears in one fell swoop but succeeding only in getting himself into deeper hot water. Seeking a loan from a friend, a broker in an investment house, he instead gets an offer: $500 a week if he would perform an important community service. Though he seems to lack a knowledge of sports given his record on the courts, he is to coach a team of inner-city kids who regularly fumble the ball, strike out at bat, and have little self-esteem other than that which rubs off when taught by the attractive Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane) in a Catholic school. The kids are individuals, even if Conor appears to treat them for the most part as a group: one has asthma, another is tries to play illegally with a forged birth certificate. They're all cute, they all listen to what the coach says even if they more than occasionally get into fights with one another. Strangely enough, we never get to see any specifics that the adult imparts to the minors short of giving them pep talks. There's nothing about signals that the catcher should make for the pitcher or clues about how a shortstop can better field a line drive.

The story shifts regularly from the ball field to the classroom, spending a considerable amount of time on O'Neill's troubles as he is harassed and beaten by his creditors, hectored by at least one of the mothers of the kids, and taken down a peg by teacher Elizabeth--who plays hard-to-get when Conor asks her for a date though she obviously likes him and approves of the way he has with the youngsters. "Hardball," then. has balance and variety. One must question why the movie got an "R" rating, given the almost schoolmarmish language of the kids and the fights which look staged as though carried on in a live production which has the director worrying about injuries to the performers. In no way does the film really play hardball, but it is at base an entertaining and uplifting drama with adorable performances by the little- leaguers and a surprisingly effective show by the often criticized Keanu Reeves.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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