Review by Kim Hollis
September 10, 2001
At one point in Hardball, Keanu Reeves' character, Conor O'Neill, says, "You don't know shit about those kids!" This heartfelt sentiment expresses perfectly this film's primary fatal flaw.
See, Conor is a compulsive gambler who just can't get his act together. After a bunch of bad dudes threaten his life because he can't pay his debts, our hero (?) goes to a wealthy friend to beg for a loan. After much hemming and hawing, this friend writes Conor a check for $500, and promises weekly stipends of the same amount to follow, with the stipulation that Conor has to assist in coaching a baseball team for underprivileged kids in the Chicago projects. Conor is apparently very unhappy about this condition because of the location of the practices/games, which seemed odd to me, considering that he wasn't exactly living on the Gold Coast himself. Nonetheless, since he owes more than twice that in weekly payments to bookies, he accepts.
When Conor shows up for the team's first practice, he is dismayed when his wealthy buddy simply stops by to drop off the equipment and then takes off for business in New York. During the course of this first practice, the following important points are established:
1) These kids have foul mouths, and this is a "funny thing."
2) D.B. Sweeney is a jackass (or his character is, anyway).
3) Conor doesn't care too much about these kids because he's immersed in trying to determine how to get out from under his gambling debts.
4) Despite this lackadaisical attitude, Conor will have to visit the kids' schoolteacher because he needs two additional players to field a complete team. No team, no $500 paycheck.
The fact that these children have no recognizable baseball skills whatsoever is saved for a subsequent practice, but that's an important element of the plot that has to be accepted if the rest of the story is going to resonate emotionally.
Next, Conor meets the children's teacher (Diane Lane), and is stunned when she is A) not a nun, and B) hot. He puts on the moves even as he is trying to obtain permission for two apparently difficult students to play. It seems these boys won't read their assignments or do their book reports, but if Conor will agree to help them with their homework, she'll allow them to play a little baseball. We can only assume that Conor goes along with this plan because he's looking for a little somethin' somethin' with Ms. Wilkes, the teacher, because he's certainly given no indication that he cares one single bit about these children or their future at this point in the film.
Oddly enough, that never really seems to change, and a movie that honestly has a great deal of possibility winds up being just mildly enjoyable. We're introduced to the various quirks and qualities of the boys on the ten-member team, but none of the characters are developed well enough that the audience develops an emotional investment in what happens to them. In fact, I think it speaks volumes that I only recall two of the kids' names, especially in light of the fact that remembering their names is actually emphasized in the movie itself. This failing certainly isn't the fault of the boys in the film. They really do a fine job, and show a great deal of humor and earnestness that is quite appealing. Instead, I got the feeling that much of the film wound up on the cutting room floor and there must be something that we missed. Considering that Hardball was toned down some to receive its more family-friendly PG-13 rating, I suppose that is a possibility.
Also troublesome is the fact that in their second practice, the boys are indescribably horrible at the game of baseball. The best example that I can give is that a ball is thrown to one of the kids, and what should be an easy catch winds up knocking him on the head. He's not the only one who plays with that level of suckitude, though. All of the kids are pretty awful, and they certainly don't gel as a team.
So you can imagine my confusion when, by the second game, these boys are suddenly playing as if baseball is in their blood. Their coach has certainly done nothing that would make this sudden development plausible. Well, he takes them for pizza and tells them that they're "going to the 'ship." Also, in a practice, Conor says that nobody is allowed to say anything bad about anyone else. Who knew it was so easy to build a championship-caliber team? Dan Duquette should take note.
As this coach/team relationship supposedly grows, we're also expected to buy that the boys greatly respect and admire Conor, who seriously tells them how little he cares about them and sits on the sidelines and tries to work out a huge wager so that he can pay off his other unpaid debts. Yet he's apparently inspirational enough to motivate Kofi, one of the two kids Conor is supposed to be tutoring, to complete his homework on time.
Speaking of Conor's betting problems, it is important to note that the subplot dealing with gambling addiction plays pretty heavily in Hardball. While the trailer and the commercials make this film appear to be fun for the whole family, many of Conor's dealings with his bookies and their "associates" are probably too intense for young children. The movie has a number of heavy moments that even go beyond those scenes as well. Hardball has many funny moments, but it is not a comedy.
Yet the children are endearing enough to make this film kind of fun. DeWayne Morgan's G-Baby is adorable, and the kid with the headphones (remember how I said names weren't really emphasized enough?) is laconic and odd, but in a good way.
Reeves puts plenty of arm-flailing gusto into his character, but it's never quite clear why we should root for him or be sympathetic to his situation. Actually, most times, he's patently dislikable. The remaining players (other than John Hawkes as Ticky, Conor's gambling buddy) don't see much screen time. This absence is noticeable, since Conor's interaction with people other than the children is fairly integral to his character's gradual maturing process. It's also a problem for D.B. Sweeney, who plays an extremely one-dimensional, over-competitive coach of a rival team. We're never made to understand why this guy would be such a tremendous jerk, and he's more silly than threatening.
The problem may actually be in the script, which was adapted from Daniel Coyle's book, Hardball: A Season in the Projects. The book received excellent reviews, and apparently the screenwriter, John Gatins, likes baseball movies, since his only prior writing credit is for Summer Catch. Whether it was his decision or the director's (Brian Robbins, who previously helmed Ready to Rumble and Varsity Blues) to cut so frequently and disjointedly between the gambling story and the main plot dealing with the baseball team, the overall quality of the movie suffers, as it feels as though it's never quite sure what it wants to be.
Considering that I actually liked the film despite its missteps, I found it disappointing that Hardball just couldn't quite live up to its potential.