Ball Game : Disney Knuckleball


Dennis Quaid is soaking wet. Rain fills every inch of the air surrounding him; rivulets of it run swift and steady through the many creases in his tattered face. Baseball caps are better shade trees than umbrellas, as Quaid’s proves by yielding to the shoulder-bound spouts that arise at regular intervals on its surface.

But Quaid is playing Jim Morris, and Morris is unfazed by climatic conditions. He screws his wrinkled maw into position, grimly channeling the phrase, “don’t fuck with me,” though there is no batter in the box. The face is by now a ritual, as much a part of Morris’s pitching motion as the movement of his fingers or hips as he leans back to begin his delivery. He’s going to throw a fastball. He always throws the fastball.

There is a slight pop, a heady whoosh, and the ball flashes almost imperceptibly across the wide, wide screen. As the sound whizzes from the right speaker to the left, terminating in the satisfying THWACK of ball against mitt, you realize that CinemaScope and Digital Theatre Sound were made for baseball movies.

It’s a nice moment, one of several in Disney’s true-life adventure The Rookie, wherein the House that Eisner Built keeps the schlock to a considerate minimum and seasons it with a healthy amount of the gravel and grit that pave the jagged surfaces of real life in America.

Sure, Quaid looks very little like the mustachioed Morris, whose big-league debut at age 35 squeezed ink from the pens of sports scribes nationwide. Sure, Jim’s wife (played robustly by Rachel Griffiths, of HBO’s Six Feet Under) is a little too saintly in her handling of three young children while Jim works his way through the minor leagues. Sure, Jim’s spunky firstborn, Hunter, is unbearably adoring and adorable. And yes, we are asked to stomach some sidekick-y comic types as inhabitants of Big Lake, TX, where Jim coaches high school ball. There’s the Wily Hick, the Nearsighted Old Coot, and even the Wacky Black Kid – though the latter quickly cedes the spotlight to the Fiesty Latin Slugger.

But despite all of this, director John Lee Hancock (himself a rookie) and writer Mike Rich deftly resist the urge to paint their picture by the Disney numbers. Quaid is one real asset to their cause. His careful demeanor and measured (line) delivery are well-matched to his leathery exterior, allowing him to convey sincere affection for his family and his team without resorting to cloying sentimentality or emasculated pleading. In the film’s Big Game Pep Talk, he doesn’t even allude to the bargain that has kept the Owls in the pennant race all season. His major-league tryout can wait; for now “[t]his team has won 16 games. We need 17.”

Hancock and Rich also profit from the talents of (frequent Michael Bay flunky) John Schwartzman, whose camera makes fluent and frequent use of rain and sunbeams to highlight the on-field dramatics. Schwartzmann also succeeds at documenting the maddening, glorious flatness of Jim’s Texas environs – which David Byrne once called their “same but more” quality. Perhaps his only weakness lies in a predilection for what my date called “soft, glowy light” whenever Ms. Griffiths steps on screen.

The music is also remarkable – almost exclusively genuine and heart-rending country & western. Like the lines on Quaid’s face, every note sung by Willie Nelson or Guy Clark (“Stuff that Works”!) seems to encapsulate the whole tragedy of Jim’s middle age: I’m stuck in Texas, I never made something of myself, and man, am I down!

Unfortunately, even a small dose of reality, when injected into the rigid Disney formulae, can be enough to remind one that life always resists reduction to 90 wholesome minutes. The Rookie clocks in at 126 – downright epic for a G-rated picture. Even at that length, it really can’t explore the brevity of Morris’s big league career (he pitched 15 innings, over parts of 1999 and 2000) or the reasons for his departure (eventually he re-injured his arm; the film gives the not implausible impression that he simply had no curveball).

Against these omissions, long scenes of domestic chores or children’s birthday parties begin to seem like extraneous padding. Because of their demonstrated good faith, though, I’m willing to give Hancock and Rich the benefit of the doubt, and remember the immortal words of Joel Hodgson: “Only Love Pads the Film.”

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