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Hardball (2001) - Does it hold up?

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Keanu Reeves is back in another sports movie!

The poster for the movie Hardball

First, an aside

Before I start talking about Hardball, I want to correct one mistake I made when discussing The Replacements last week. I had meant to give the film credit for its positive portrayal of a deaf man who was still really good at sports. That kind of representation is still incredibly hard to find even 20 years later, and it was a credit to the movie that they at least took that one seriously and gave deaf kids someone like themselves as a hero on the big screen.

OK, back to Hardball.

After watching The Replacements last week, I realized there was still at least one baseball movie that I had initially planned to watch for this series and had forgotten until last week since both movies star Keanu Reeves. I remember seeing this movie in theaters when I was a kid, and I remember hating it. I’ve never been a fan of sad stories, and the tale told here is not particularly uplifting. It seems, on the surface, that it should be a comedy. And, honestly, the story hits a lot of the same beats as Bad News Bears. A down-on-his-luck man who drinks too much is forced to coach a kids baseball team because the rich person who should be coaching can’t be bothered, and the first guy needs the money. The other adults in the league make it clear early and often that they don’t want this particular team around because it has “undesirables” on it and it is therefore underfunded and faces more adversity than the other teams.

However, whereas Bad News Bears’ Coach Buttermaker is an alcoholic who used to be a pro ball player and eventually teaches the kids first how to be good and then the importance of having fun, Keanu Reeves’ Conor O’Neill is a sports gambler in debt to two different bookies, has no particular knowledge of baseball, and honestly teaches the kids nothing. He doesn’t even attempt to teach them anything. The film’s tagline is, “The most important thing in life is showing up” and that’s the entire extent of what O’Neill does.

This movie suffers from what Roger Ebert calls ”being a genre picture” and what I’ve always described as “Forgetting the journey.” After you’ve seen a certain number of movies in a genre, you begin to see the pattern. Some films will subvert the pattern, but many more of them will follow it. Following the pattern is not automatically a bad thing, but it makes the journey more important than the destination. The story itself can still be (and must be, to be good) unique in the path it takes to get from Point A to Point B. Unfortunately, in a film like Hardball, the creative team forgets to show that journey entirely, much less make it something unique. Conor O’Neill starts as a deadbeat sports gambler. Savvy viewers will figure that by the end of the film, he’ll have learned the error of his ways, improved his lot in life, and probably picked up a girlfriend. And, indeed, all of those things happen, but the movie never shows us why. They just pop up at the appropriate moments.

One example is how O’Neill learns to stop betting on sports. Ideally, this would occur because his relationships with other characters change his priorities. But Conor never really interacts with any of the kids on a one-on-one basis. He only ever addresses the group, with a couple of exceptions for G-Baby, which prevents them from appearing to have any kind of actual personal relationship with him. The topic of his sports gambling, therefore, never comes up with the kids. Further, his relationship with Diane Lane’s Elizabeth Wilkes is perfunctory and lacking in any chemistry that would give you the sense that he cares about her bad opinion other than his visceral reaction to insult her when she admits she knows he’s been lying about his job. In the end, he just appears to have an unprompted and unmotivated epiphany on the subject when the story is ready for him to do so.

The movie does have a handful of excellent moments that highlight just how lifeless the rest of the film’s writing and direction is. When O’Neill begins realizing he doesn’t want to quit coaching for the kids or gamble on sports anymore, he decides to abruptly take the kids to a Cubs/White Sox game. (On a barely related note, it features a young Jon Garland and Kerry Wood facing each other. A prime pitching matchup in its day!) Reeves’ energy in this scene and the confusion and then delight of the kids is terrific. Conor’s speech following the murder of G-Baby is also quite touching.

However, the best scene in the movie is when Conor goes to apologize to Miss Wilkes for insulting her on their “date.” He then surprises her, and me, by not trying to win her back but just asking after the potential job she had mentioned. She’s so thrown off that her body language accidentally reveals to him that she does like him, and he is so shocked when he realizes it that he gets a bit giddy and slides gracefully into some very charming flirting that causes both characters to light up the screen. The only bad thing is that it’s the only scene in which the two characters seem to actually have any chemistry, which makes the bland scenes that came before and the kiss that comes later feel even more awkward and out-of-place than they already did.

In the end, the movie holds up as well as it ever did. If you’re the kind of person who wants to just turn your brain off and watch a movie, Hardball will get you by. The disappointment comes if, like me, you see the pieces there for a stronger narrative and are disappointed by the movie’s inability or unwillingness to try harder to reach those heights. However, that isn’t exactly a new disappointment, as evidenced by the 41% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, it’s no sin to fail to reach maximum potential and it does nothing outright awful like many other entries in this series.

P.S. This was the acting debut of Michael B. Jordan. He plays young Jamal, born two weeks too early to play in the league according to the rules. Late in the film, he shows off the early version of his now-world-famous brood after the league kicks him off of the team and his friends find that he’s joined a local gang for want of something better to do.