Keanu Reeves had better hope that the sequels to “The Matrix” are soon in coming; his track record since the 1999 smash has been spotty indeed. He was quite good in a small role as an abusive husband in Sam Raimi’s “The Gift,” but the picture was largely ignored, and both “The Watcher” and “Sweet November” proved appalling embarrassments to all concerned (as well as box-office bombs). Even “The Replacements,” which was a moderately enjoyable goof, failed to make much of an impression. Now Reeves has returned to the sports milieu with even less success. “Hardball” is a limp, saccharine combination of “The Bad News Bears” and “Music of the Heart” (would the result more properly be “The Bad News Heart” or “Music of the Bears”?), a formulaic concoction that mixes raunchy humor, tear-jerking schmaltz and sentimental uplift to generally dispiriting effect.
John Gatins’ script–derived from a novel by Daniel Coyle, which was supposedly based on his own experiences–uses one of the hoariest devices in modern fiction: Conor O’Neill (Reeves), a Chicago lowlife threatened by gambling debts, is forced by the friend whom he approaches for a loan to coach the inner-city youth baseball team sponsored by the creditor’s bank. The kids, needless to say, are variously precocious, smart-mouthed and lovable. As O’Neill works with them, of course, he gains respect for their grit in the face of adversity, and learns to appreciate the joy of serving others. He also finds predictable romance with the kids’ dedicated teacher (Diane Lane). In other words, the movie is equal parts Redemption Through Coaching and Winning Against the Odds.
There are some good things about “Hardball.” In a few sequences it captures the hellish environment of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects surprisingly well, and though Reeves tends to overemote in an effort to pump things up, Lane is pleasantly restrained. The kids on the team are ingratiating, too–especially Julian Griffith as a tubby asthmatic, DeWayne Warren as a pint-sized wannabe player, and A. Delon Ellis, Jr., as a pitcher who needs rap music to control his fast ball. (It should be noted, however, that, especially in the early going, the nasty slang they use and their mumbled delivery leave many of their lines virtually indecipherable.) But the strengths are more than outbalanced by the weaknesses. A subplot involving a hard-nosed rival coach (D.B. Sweeney, who oddly enough starred in a film with similar elements–though on a basketball court rather than a baseball field–in 1991’s “Heaven is a Playground”) and an officious league president is crudely obvious, and all the material involving Conor’s gambling activities plays like a low-rent “Mean Streets.” One particularly poor sequence is the inevitable visit of the team to a Cubs game, and it’s choreographed almost like a religious experience: angelic choirs might be chanting as the boys enter Wrigley Field, and when Sammy Sosa appears in slow-mo to bestow his blessing on the group, he’s treated almost like the figure of Christ would have been in an old Samuel Bronston biblical epic. The result is positively laughable. And then there’s the obligatory tragedy-from-which-we-come-back at the close, which tugs at the heartstrings so insistently that you’re likely to feel you’ve been emotionally mugged.
“Hardball” ultimately has much the same impact as a fast pitch to one’s forehead. Despite occasional nice touches, it’s so shamelessly manipulative and familiar that it will leave you groggy from its banality. Of course, one can avoid it easily by not buying a ticket–a choice many will undoubtedly make, lengthening the star’s recent string of disappointments. (After all, even Meryl Streep couldn’t persuade people to come to the superior “Music of the Heart.”) At one point, O’Neill says to his charges, in a tone that reminds one inescapably of slacker Ted, “I’m blown away by your ability to show up.” The actor playing him might find himself repeating those words to the few dedicated fans who will pay to see this error-plagued outing. Despite its title, it’s too soft and squishy for comfort, and while it can’t be counted a strike-out on the cinematic scoreboard, it’s at best a weak single.