If truth-in-advertising laws applied to movies, the makers of Hardball would be in for some pretty hefty fines from the Fair Trade Commission. The title may be Hardball and the subject may be Little League baseball in the gritty streets of Chicago’s housing projects, but the film is not “hard” at all. It’s softheaded and stupid, soggy with every cheap trick that shamelessness can think to play and ineptitude can fail to hide.
Keanu Reeves plays Conor O’Neill, a gambler, ticket scalper and career drunk. When he gets deep in debt to a couple of loan officers whose collection procedures usually involve smashing thumbs and shattering kneecaps, he goes to a stockbroker friend to bail him out. The friend, though, puts a price on his help: he will pay Conor just enough per week to keep the sharks at bay, and in return Conor is to take his place coaching an inner-city baseball team his brokerage firm sponsors. At first Conor balks when he hears the location of the ballpark: “No way, that’s in those shitty projects.” (This takes some nerve, considering the fetid pigsty Conor himself lives in.)
In time, though, Conor comes to bond with his charges, an adorable bunch of trash-talking tykes with names like Kofi, Jamal, Ray-Ray and G-Baby. He also hits it off with their teacher, Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane). When she says, “I think it’s great you’re teaching them baseball; I just think it would be nice if somebody would teach them to read,” he springs into action. The next day he shows up in her classroom in an ill-fitting thrift-shop suit and cheap tie. White socks, too, just in case we miss the uproarious humor of it all. How this lurid spectacle is supposed to improve the team’s literacy is only one of the mysteries John Gatins’ script fails to explain.
There have been rumors of script “trouble” on Hardball but the truth is, Gatins’ script is a hopeless mess. Although it claims to be based on a book by Daniel Coyle, there’s no sense of conviction or reality in it; it seems to be made up entirely of scenes designed to look good in a preview trailer. It doesn’t even have any internal logic of its own. The last few minutes give a perfect example of Gatins’ clumsiness. Just as the ninth-inning climax of the Big Game approaches, Gatins dissolves to the game’s aftermath, then gives us the rest of the game in flashback during a church service several days later. It’s mind-boggling; how did Gatins get out of screenwriting school without learning better than to do something like that?
But the ending is only the scab on the festering sore of Hardball. The script is lazy, plugging its own holes with star power. This Conor O’Neill is a sleazeball, pure and simple, but because he’s played by Keanu Reeves we’re supposed to believe he would give a rap about these kids, or that a teacher like Wilkes would see through the sordid surface to the swell guy underneath. It’s become a tiresome cliché, this idea of the noble white man riding to the rescue of imperiled blacks—in Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning, Ghosts of Mississippi, Amistad, among others. In Hardball, the white man isn’t even noble—he’s the scum of the earth, in fact—but he’s still good enough to save black kids (most of them, anyway) from the ghetto. It’s probably no coincidence that the only black adult male in the film (president of the local Little League) is unsympathetic, almost a villain. Thus doth Sir Keanu the White Knight shine all the brighter.
Director Brian Robbins may not deserve any blame for the script (although you never know who might stick their oar in when a film runs into script trouble), but he’s helpless to do anything with it. His staging is sloppy; perhaps he thinks he’s catching the jittery rhythms of the street, but he’s really just lurching from line to line and confusing the minor characters until we can’t be sure who is who.
I mentioned shameless, cheap tricks. At the risk of giving things away … did you have the misfortune to see Pay It Forward? Then you can guess how shameless and cheap the tricks are in Hardball. And that’s as much as I’ll say about that.