A troubled man who gets coaxed into coaching an underdog Little League baseball team. A group of kids who open up his eyes to the world, just as he shows them what compassion and determination truly mean. "Hardball," directed by sports-oriented filmmaker Brian Robbins (1999's "Varsity Blues," 2000's "Ready to Rumble"), wears its falsely sentimental heart on its sleeve and hasn't a fresh or durable moment in its 102-minute entirety.
With "Hardball," Keanu Reeves has peculiarly made his second sports film in just as many years (2000's football comedy "The Replacements"). He stars as Conor O'Neill, a down-on-his-luck compulsive gambler who is in debt no less than $6,000. With time running out to pay the impatient bookies, he seeks the help of an old pal (Mike McGlone) who, in turn, agrees to pay him $500 a week if he will coach his company's Little League team. Conor reluctantly agrees, despite claiming to not be good with kids, and immediately takes a liking to the ragtag bunch, all of which are residing in the projects of Chicago.
Anyone who has ever seen a sports movie will be able to guess what happens next, save for a tearjerker ending that attempts, and fails, to pluck the heartstrings. The story develops in a strictly cliched manner, and all of the main characters are absent of interesting or notably quirky personalities. The "dime-a-dozen" screenplay by John Gatins (2001's superior baseball flick "Summer Catch") is akin to a thrift shop novelty that is way past its prime.
The entire cast is serviceable and nothing more. Despite some cute performances from the kids, most of which are making their feature film debuts, the adults act as if they (1) don't have their hearts in it, or (2) have been drugged with heavy doses of Dramamine. Keanu Reeves does what he can, which isn't much, but never gets a chance to test his abilities like he did in 2000's "The Gift." As his trusty love interest and the children's school teacher, Diane Lane (also appearing in this week's "The Glass House") is dreadfully wasted.
Movies like "Hardball" have no distinct purpose for existing. Too somber to be a comedy, too syrupy to be an effective drama, and too derivative to be an entertaining or incisive baseball flick, only the most undiscriminating viewers will find anything to recommend it. Director Robbins fervently sticks to the sports movie rule books in adapting Daniel Coyle's non-fictional novel, "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," and makes nary an attempt to do anything that strays from the tiresome formula. When all is said and done, the picture fails to inject even a modicum of life into its proceedings. "Hardball" is, ultimately, nothing more than a very hard film to sit through.
©2001 by Dustin Putman