One always likes to say something good about a movie, so it may be noted that “Summer Catch,” the new Freddie Prinze, Jr. romantic comedy-drama, gets better as it progresses. Unfortunately, that isn’t much of a compliment. The first twenty minutes of the bush-league “Bull Durham,” about a lower-class local kid who struggles to win recognition as a pitcher in a famous Cape Cod camp, are absolutely abysmal. Then the picture finds its rhythm, and the remaining ninety are merely very bad.
The focus of the drearily predictable script is Ryan Dunne (Prinze), who works in the lawn care business of his grumpy, recently widowed father (Fred Ward). Though his college career has been a bust, he’s chosen by hard-as-nails Coach Schiffner (Brian Dennehy) to join a bunch of campus stars and pro prospects on the elite squad, and has to struggle with his penchant for self-destructive behavior to find his groove and become a winner against all the odds. Matters are complicated by the fact that he also falls for Tenley (Jessica Biel), the daughter of one of his dad’s rich clients, Rand (Bruce Davison), a smug, smarmy sort who has other plans for his little princess than life with a yard man. (You can tell Rand is wealthy and snooty, because whenever there’s a scene set in his house, some Mozart is playing as background music.) Other figures float in and out of the action: catcher Billy Brubaker (Matthew Lillard), a smirking hell-raiser never at a loss for some crude remark; an arrogant California dude (Corey Pearson), who’s Ryan’s main pitching rival; a beefy outfielder (Marc Blucas) who–in a bit repeated with wearisome regularity–prefers chubby women; a shy player (Wilmer Valderrama, of “That 70’s Show”) whose well-preserved landlady has a thing for him; Ryan’s older brother (Jason Gedrick), a bartender who berates his sibling for wasting his talent; two of the boy’s old school chums, Auggie and Pete (Gabriel Mann and Jed Robert Rhein), who drunkenly egg him on to great things; Tenley’s precocious younger sister Katie (Zena Grey), who loves baseball and tries out a succession of cute mascot costumes on the crowd; a scout with his eye on Ryan (an unbilled John C. McGinley, unless I miss my guess); and so on. You’ve met all these people before in better movies (and worse ones, too).
Most of the screenplay is so formulaic that you can call its moves well in advance, but it hits particularly low points when the action stops so that one character or another can deliver some especially laughable monologue or two of them can have a purportedly meaningful conversation. You’re likely to find yourself suppressing a giggle when Dennehy has to snarl at his team or offer a ludicrous speech about the moment when a pitcher’s “stuff” all comes together; or when Auggie tells Ryan what his accomplishments mean to his buddies; or when Mike explains to Ryan the flaws in his game plan; or when Rand informs Ryan that he’s “crossed the line” by daring to court his daughter. The performances don’t elevate things. Prinze, with an on-and-off (mostly off) accent, is as bland as usual, and he has to endure some painful moments of undress. So does Lillard, a lanky fellow who seems in a perpetual state of hyperventilation and mugs so fiercely that he should never be shot in closeup. (Prinze and Lillard also co-starred in 1999’s computer-game bomb “Wing Commander.” If they persist in acting as a team, they could be billed as The Bore and the Boor.) Biel is attractive enough but vacuous, while Davison is all oily unpleasantness as her father (compare his far more subtle and nuanced turn in a similar part in the recent “Crazy/Beautiful”). Ward and Dennehy take turns doing the lovably gruff shtick that these two old pros can manage in their sleep, and Gedrick is simply wasted. The rest of the supporting cast fall into the sketchily colorful category. There are cameo turns by baseball figures like Hank Aaron and Curt Gowdy, but they don’t add much to the mix. Technically the picture is professional enough, but Tim Suhrstedt’s cinematography and Harvey Rosenstock’s editing can’t make the game footage very exciting, given Mike Tollin’s leaden direction.
Ultimately “Summer Catch” is a cinematic foul ball that’s about as interesting as a game between teams so mismatched that the outcome is never in doubt. Do yourself a favor and just throw it back.