[Screen It]

(2002) (Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths) (G)

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Drama: Spurred on by a bet he made with the high school baseball team he coaches, an older science teacher tries out for the big leagues again, hoping to impress them with his amazingly fast pitching.
Years after repeated injuries forced him to give up his dream of playing major league baseball, Jim Morris (DENNIS QUAID), has settled back into life in the small Texas town where he grew up with his mother, Olline (BETH GRANT), and father, Jim Sr. (BRIAN COX). Married to Lorri (RACHEL GRIFFITHS) and proud father of Hunter (ANGUS T. JONES) and two other kids, Jim currently serves as Big Lake High School's science teacher and baseball coach.

The team, consisting of players including Joaquin "Wack" Campos (JAY HERNANDEZ), Joel De La Garza (ANGELO SPIZZIRRI), Joe David West (CHAD LINDBERG) and Rudy Bonilla (RICK GONZALEZ), isn't overly inspired, mainly because everyone in town is more interested in seeing the football team succeed and could care less about baseball.

When Jim ends up pitching during practice, he impresses his players with his incredibly fast pitches and causes them to wonder why he hasn't attempted to try out for the majors again. He says he had his shot - something of a defeatist attitude imposed by his estranged father -- but his players make a bet with him. Although he thinks it's a crazy notion, he agrees that if they can make it to the state playoffs, he'll try out one more time.

With the aid of longtime townies Henry (ROYCE D. APPLEGATE), Cal (DAVID BLACKWELL) and Frank (RAYNOR SCHEINE), Jim then gets the ball field into shape and inspires his players to win. When they reach their goal, he keeps up his side of the deal and ends up impressing the scouts enough to end up on the farm team for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

From that point on, and while dealing with much younger players including Brooks (RUSSELL RICHARDSON) who initially don't like the attention the "old man" receives simply for being different, Jim must then decide whether the nonstop travel, low pay and time away from his family is worth the pursuit of his dream.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
The history of sports is filled with countless accounts of individuals who've overcome any number of obstacles, both internal and external, to achieve some level of success in whatever goal they were pursuing. Whether well-known or obscure, the stories of such athletes, coaches or others are often amazing, shocking and/or uplifting. They obviously also draw the attention of Hollywood, as has been evidenced in the past few years by the likes of "Ali," "Remember the Titans" and "The Hurricane."

Now the story of baseball relief picture Jim Morris can be added to the list with the release of "The Rookie," an above average sports flick that gets better as it proceeds. Unless you're friends, family or followers of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, however, you're probably asking, "Jim who?"

Little more than a footnote in the annals of major league baseball, the real-life man made news for himself by working up through the minor leagues to a two-year stint in the majors. While that might not sound particularly noteworthy since ball players have been doing that for decades, the remarkable thing about it is that Morris did it at the age when most players are contemplating hanging up their cleats and after trying it a decade earlier only to be derailed by repeated injuries.

If that plot sounds familiar, it should since it's rather similar to what transpired in Barry Levinson's "That Natural." In it, Robert Redford played an old school ball player who returns to the game after a long absence and astounds everyone with his abilities (that had been cut short years earlier by an injury via a gunshot).

Accordingly, the film will inevitably drawn comparisons to that one not only due to the plot, but also the slow and methodical pacing that guides it from start to finish. For those who complained that Levinson's film was positively glacial in that aspect, it will seem like a Road Runner and Speedy Gonzalez road race compared to this one.

Slow, of course, doesn't necessarily equal bad as long as the story, direction and performances manage to engage the viewer. That was the case with "The Natural" and other films such as "Meet Joe Black" and "The Straight Story," the latter of which was another live-action and G-rated, Disney film not aimed specifically at kids.

Beyond following a predictable plot line -you'll pretty much know where it's headed with or without any familiarity with the true story - and some instances of dialogue that are far too on the nose - both courtesy of scribe Mike Rich ("Finding Forrester") -- the film's biggest problem is that butt-numbing pacing.

Perhaps that shouldn't come as a surprise since the film's director John Lee Hancock (writer/director of "Hard Time Romance") also penned the similarly temporally challenged "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (although director Clint Eastwood obviously shares some of that blame as well). Of course, that film at least had a murder mystery element to keep viewers interested.

The unnecessarily slow pacing here - which will test those with short attention spans and/or patience -- undermines a good part of what eventually manages to become a pretty decent little film despite that and its other less severe problems. It certainly would have benefited from any number of directorial flourishes, touches and/or more humor, and isn't helped by the fact that it doesn't possess that sparkle and/or magic that fueled "The Natural" or especially "Field of Dreams."

What it does have going for it, however, is a true story, and the filmmakers haven't tried to idolize the protagonist as was the case with Robert Redford or deliver the big heroic ending at the bottom of the ninth. It has a terrific finale, all right, but it thankfully doesn't feel as if Hollywood has run it through its standard processor.

Upon hearing that the story is about a coach who inspires his team of young players to win as part of a bet (where if he succeeds he must try out for the majors), some may have thoughts of "The Bad News Bears" films or even the more recent "Hardball" and their style of attempting to elicit laughs via the profane, "bad boy" characters.

Fortunately, this one doesn't go down that path - although it has the similar elements of not showing the viewer enough believable coaching for us to buy into the sudden losers into winners transformation - and that part of the story only makes up about half of the film (the rest focuses on the protagonist following up his side of the arrangement).

The filmmakers are obviously going for a more realistic approach and feel, and for the most part, they succeed in showing a man getting a second chance at his lifelong dream. The decent to above average performances they get from their cast certainly don't hurt their effort either.

Playing the onscreen version of the real life protagonist, Dennis Quaid ("Traffic," "Frequency") is quite good as well as believable in the role, even if the filmmakers opted to include an added sound effect to his pitches to make them sound faster than they look. Whether it's dealing with his young ballplayers, his family or his own insecurities and dreams, Quaid delivers a terrific performance.

His character's relationship with his wife, nicely played by Rachel Griffiths ("Blow," "Hilary and Jackie"), feels completely natural and their chemistry together works. All of that certainly provides for the film's best emotional moments as the two go through the expected husband and wife moments for a story such as this, and the film's tugging on one's heartstrings thankfully doesn't feel contrived or manipulative.

Brian Cox ("Super Troopers," "The Affair of the Necklace") and Beth Grant ("Donnie Darko," "Rock Star") turn in good performances as the protagonist's parents, while Angus T. Jones ("See Spot Run," "Simpatico") is cute without being sickening as his son. While they mostly disappear after the midway mark, the various performers playing the high school players, such as Jay Hernandez ("crazy/beautiful") and Angelo Spizzirri ("Rocket's Red Glare," "Groove"), are generally good.

Despite its predictable nature - including various, obligatory slow motion shots of the protagonist pitching courtesy of cinematographer John Schwartzman ("Pearl Harbor," "Armageddon") -- and the slow and methodical pacing that makes the film feel a bit too long since little or nothing tremendous or surprising occurs during such passages, the film nevertheless manages to turn into a winning effort.

Although there's nothing here we haven't seen before, the fact that it's based on true events, coupled with the solid performances from Quaid and Griffiths, means that the film should please baseball fans and even casual moviegoers if they're willing to let the picture develop and unfold at its own leisurely pace. "The Rookie" might not hit a grand slam, but it strikes the ball well and far enough to rate as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 28, 2002 / Posted March 29, 2002

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