One has to wonder how “Hardball” was pitched to executives: “It”ll be like “The Bad News Bears” meets “Dangerous Minds!” Oh, and Keanu Reeves will star.” Sadly, this is the best way to describe this terrible and downright embarrassing film.
Inspired by a true story, “Hardball” follows the misadventures of Connor O”Neil (Keanu Reeves), a compulsive gambler who finds himself in serious debt to some equally serious neck-less bookies.
In an attempt to save his kneecaps, he goes to a rich, businessman friend (Mike McGlone “The Brothers McMullen”) for money. However, instead of bailing him out all at once, his friend offers him a deal: Connor will be paid $500 for every week that he coaches a little league team in the projects of Cabrini-Green. Connor is then forced to balance coaching 11 rowdy, disobedient kids with dodging his increasingly ill-tempered bookies. So, of course, Connor eventually bonds with the kids, teaches them something about teamwork and (drum roll) learns something about life from the kids.
Reeves, who is apparently still in sports movie Purgatory, gives a performance that goes beyond lackluster. Most of the time it looks like he just doesn”t care. Even the few promising lines of dialogue that he has fall flat as he drones through them.
Reeves manages to pull a couple rabbits out his hat as he makes a couple lines actually work, but these are few and far between, and when they occur, they serve only as relief from the otherwise wince-worthy dialogue. It makes you long for the days of “Parenthood,” “Bill and Ted”s Excellent Adventure” or, hell, even “Point Break.” The majority of his acting in this film consists of furrowing his brow and holding his head in his hands, and his rapport with the kids feels very manufactured. And when he sings “Big Poppa” while celebrating and waving his hands in the air, the shudders were tangible.
The kids on the inner-city team are clichd, but some of them are actually pretty believable, which makes the flaws of Reeves” performance even more clear. It actually becomes hard to dislike the movie since the kids are so likable, but trust me, you”ll manage to. The dialogue relies on a few gimmicks to carry it, and whenever it loses momentum, the film just falls back on the comic value of a nine-year-old calling his coach “bitch.”
For being a movie about baseball and gambling, there is surprisingly little of either. Between the sappy filler scenes with Reeves and the kids and an utterly asinine love story between Connor and schoolteacher Elizabeth (Diane Lane), it”s very easy to forget what the movie is actually about.
One thing that makes the movie so bad is the editing. Incredibly choppy editing and bad use of fade-outs makes the film confusing to the point where you wonder if they put the reels in the wrong order.
“Hardball” is inspired by a non-fiction book of the same name by Daniel Coyle, but it is not clear what plot aspects are real and which are created for dramatic value. When a surprise death near the end of the film spins the film into a sentimental crap-fest, you can actually feel the writers tugging on your heartstrings with all of their might. Despite all of the previews that made the film look like another entry in the “Bad News Bears,””Mighty Ducks” “Ladybugs” genre, the film takes a serious fork from its predecessors.
The portrayal of the violence and the insecurity of the neighborhood and the fairly dark subject matter (both in Connor”s life and in the projects) definitely makes the film gritty and more realistic, but it”s not enough to pull the movie out of its nosedive. Any movie that makes you long for the days of Johhny Utah should set off alarms. That must have been one hell of a pitch meeting at Paramount.