There’s something about dealing with baseball that generally brings out the cornball in filmmakers. Everything in John Lee Hancock’s first major feature “The Rookie” is bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia; though it’s a relatively contemporary story–based on the life of Jim Morris, the high school teacher and coach who fulfilled his boyhood dream and made it into the major leagues at the age of thirty-five in 1999–the picture is terminally old-fashioned, and it’s photographed by John Schwartzman as though it were “The Son of the Natural.” At 129 minutes, it also moves slowly and goes on too long–like most games themselves. The effect might touch the heart of undiscriminating viewers, but should you possess the slightest trace of sophistication, it’s likely to strike you as the sort of sappily uplifting parable that’s usually confined to the small screen nowadays. (“My Dog Skip,” which Hancock produced, was equally manipulative, but it worked much better than this. Perhaps he should have left the directing duties to someone else, or added a major canine role.)
“The Rookie” is actually two movies in one; unfortunately, both are cliched. The first, which follows a prologue depicting how the young Morris’ aspiration to become a great pitcher is undermined by his brusque army dad, is basically the “Hoosiers” scenario about a smalltown team–baseball rather than basketball, of course–that wins the state championship against all the odds. The difference here is that this narrative segues into a second story, in which Morris, the apparently over-the-hill coach who promises his team that if they’re victorious he’ll try out for a professional pitching spot again, fulfills his pledge and unexpectedly earns a place not only on a minor league roster but, for a brief time, in the majors as well. (Contrary to the usual case, his fast-ball got appreciably quicker as he aged.) The picture closes with him running onto the field at the Texas Rangers ballpark and throwing a few strikes, allowing for an emotional encounter with his now-proud father. Over the course of the film we’re also introduced to Morris’ concerned but supportive wife and his ever-so-adorable son, as well as the old geezers who socialize constantly at the general store in his home town and, needless to say, the students he takes to their win at state.
Morris is played, with that air of nearly perpetual dyspepsia that’s just about become his thespian calling-card, by Dennis Quaid. He projects an air of quiet intensity mixed with a hint of sad resignation–you’ve seen it before in pictures like “Frequency” and “Switchback”–which seems oddly appropriate in view of the fact that despite a long and varied career, true stardom seems always just to have eluded him. Rachel Griffiths, unhappily, doesn’t get much to do as his wife, and even as fine an actor as Brian Cox isn’t able to vivify the rather stock part of his unyielding father; most of Beth Grant’s scenes as his mother, on the other hand, seem to have landed on the cutting-room floor. Far more noticeable, and not for the better, is Angus T. Jones as Morris’ son Hunter. The constant reaction shots of the tyke mugging at the action, along with his persistently darling dialogue, eventually become very hard to take. (In a way he’s this movie’s version of Skip, but he’s much less endearing than the pooch was.) Curiously, none of the youngsters on Morris’ high school squad make much of an impression–not even Jay Hernandez, who was quite charismatic in “crazy/beautiful” but is simply bland here. In technical terms the picture is polished and professional, but the solemnity with which Hancock has chosen to treat the material robs it of the energy and robustness it ought to have had; like “The Natural,” it looks great but feels too emphatic and calculated ever to take off. The leaden pacing keeps bogging things down.
Appealing to the eye but oddly unaffecting, “The Rookie” isn’t a total strikeout, but it is a swing and a miss.