Casting Keanu Reeves as the determined baseball coach of young boys from the projects may look like a box office homerun, but Hardball fails to hit anything out of the park.
Hardball (Paramount) looks at first like a touching, thoughtful story based on writer Daniel Coyle’s true-life account of a Little League team in the Cabrini Green housing projects of Chicago during the early 1990s.
Conor O’Neill (Reeves), a direction-less young man stuck in the downward spiral of gambling debt, makes a deal with a friend in hope that he will loan him enough cash to get himself out of trouble. The condition is that O’Neill must coach a Little League team, the Kekambas.
Although O’Neill has no experience with kids, he warms up to the team too soon. Reeve’s character changes over a matter of minutes, without any clear motivation. At first, O’Neill keeps the boys practicing after dark, which causes Jefferson Tibbs (Julian Griffith) to get beaten up and mugged. Seconds later, he’s driving the whole team home in a station wagon.
But it seems as though there was more than enough time to explore O’Neill’s courtship of Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane), the boys’ teacher who asks O’Neill to help tutor the team while they practice. But even the romance gets confusing after O’Neill asks Wilkes to a bar and then unexpectedly cusses her out when she accuses him of lying. The romantic sub-plot lacks connection and doesn’t even grasp the boy-meets-girl plot line seen in typical movie relationships.
Even with many other superfluous sub-plots floating through Hardball, the best part remains watching the interactions between the baseball players and O’Neill. The image of Miles (Alan Ellis Jr.), dancing around to his favorite rap song, “Big Pappa,” before pitching comes across as plain hilarious.
Hardball manages to delve into the reality of some of the young boys’ lives, although it lacks the makings of a truly good movie. In one scene, O’Neill walks one of the team members to his door, passing by families in their small gated-in homes. O’Neill asks, “Why are they sitting on the floor?” The boy responds, “To dodge the bullets.” Director Brian Robbins (Summer Catch) does a great job putting the audience into the middle of this powerful scene.
Reeves (Sweet November) was placed in this movie simply for his box-office draw. He handles the role of the nice-guy coach, but is unconvincing as the tough guy. If quality was held above ticket sales, the role would have been given to an actor, known or unknown, who could have brought more to the character of Conor O’ Neill than just name recognition.
Hardball is a fine movie for parent-child bonding, if only because both can walk away unsatisfied.
Hardball is in theaters now.