Hardball (September 13/01)
Boy, talk about a deceptive ad campaign.
The marketers behind Hardball want you to assume that this is a warm and fuzzy sports comedy, in the same vein as The Mighty Ducks or The Bad News Bears. While it does share certain elements with those two flicks (all three movies are about a reluctant man forced to coach a little league team), Hardball is much darker and far more adult than the commercials and trailer want you to believe.
Keanu Reeves stars as Conor, a desperate man with a gambling problem. He's 13 thousand dollars in debt and willing to accept money in any form. A rich and successful longtime friend offers him a job, one that pays $500 a week. The job? Coach an inner-city little league baseball team. Conor doesn't have too many choices open to him, so he hesitantly says yes. And, of course, Conor soon comes to love the kids and realizes that there's more to life than laying down bets.
Thematically, Hardball is remarkably similar to Reeves' last film, Sweet November. Both feature Reeves living a far-too-fast-paced life (in the case of Sweet November, he was an ad exec who received a wake-up call from Charlize Theron) and both follow his journey towards self-discovery. But while Sweet November was weighed down by it's sickly sweet storyline, Hardball uses the tried and true elements of this genre to tell a thoroughly entertaining story. Manipulative? You bet. Hardball throws in every cliché you could possibly imagine - from the wheezy fat kid to the evil opposing coach - but it really works here.
A lot of the credit for that has to go to Reeves himself. This is perhaps one of his best performances, alongside such notable flicks as The Devil's Advocate and even Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. This is a character that has to change tremendously over the space of around 105 minutes, and Reeves is more than up to the challenge. Conor runs the gamut of emotions, from complete and utter dismay to joy to tearful regret, and Reeves unexpectedly proves that he's got the chops and turns out a great (if not exactly Oscar caliber) performance.
Hardball, while not the Mighty Ducks clone the ad campaign would have you believe, is nonetheless an incredibly entertaining little movie, anchored by that great Reeves performance.