Keanu Reeves is Conor O'Neill, a down-on-his-luck slacker with a large gambling debt. When his friend offers him a job coaching a Little League team, Conor reluctantly accepts the job so that he can start paying off his bookies. At first, his only reason for coaching a rag-tag group of inner city kids is a steady paycheck, but the team eventually grows on him, giving him a new perspective on the world and a chance to turn his life around. If that doesn't sound like your typical movie of the week, I don't know what does...
Loosely based on Daniel Coyle's book Hardball: A Season in the Projects, this silver screen adaptation is a story of overcoming hardships watered down to its most basic Hollywood elements. Like other feel-good little league flicks such as The Bad News Bears and The Mighty Ducks, Hardball takes a team of disadvantaged kids (in this case, they're poor kids from the projects who experience with fear and crime on a daily basis) and turns them into a group of winners who find they can accomplish anything with the right amount of cooperation and confidence. And like its predecessors, Hardball also pairs them with a reluctant coach whose tough exterior is finally broken when he comes to care about his scruffy but heartwarming pack of rugrats.
There's virtually nothing about Hardball that makes it original, and everything is utterly predictable. There's also very little that distinguishes Hardball from other flicks of this type, except for its somewhat dark tone. Themes of death are prevalent, and a gambling-addicted and alcoholic Conor O'Neill makes even less of a role model than Emilio Estevez and Walter Matthau.
As the kids' dedicated teacher Ms. Wilkes, Diane Lane runs double Hollywood cliche duty: first, she's the token white girl teaching in the 'hood, who refuses to give up on her kids despite the overwhelming obstacles; and second, she's the token love interest for Keanu Reeves' leading man. Both relationships feel forced, and neither is particularly interesting. But at least one of my Hollywood theories of storytelling is supported: all the fine female teachers work at troubled, ratty public schools.
The relationship between Keanu and the kids, the centerpiece of the story, is barely more believable. They accept him with surprisingly little resistance, and a it only takes a few words from Keanu to work magic. By simply telling them not to talk smack to each other, they learn cooperation and operate as a real team for the first time. And when Keanu gushes, "I am blown away by your ability to show up" (a half-assed catch phrase meant to reverberate poignantly), he inspires hope eternal. Now I might be able to accept Keanu working miracles as cyber-Jedi Neo in The Matrix, but in a drama/comedy about trouble urban youth? Somehow, that's a bigger stretch...
But Hardball is not without its strengths. Like other films that adhere strictly to Hollywood formula, it is particularly accomplished at playing on the audience's emotions. It knows just the right time to throw in a joke, mix in some romance, or tug on a heartstring. This can easily be a feel good movie if you let it, as long as you put aside any pretense for originality and breakthrough acting.
Rating: 5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)