Saturday, November 12, 2011

Hardball.


Hardball (Brian Robbins, 2001) 

Category: Sad film about a youth sports team. (See also: sad version of The Mighty Ducks, featuring Keanu Reeves as Gordon Bombay.) Apologies for sounding old-fashioned, but I firmly believe that youth sports are one of the foundations of our great nation. (I feel like Teddy Roosevelt and I would have been friends.) If done correctly, there’s all manner of lessons to be learned about teamwork and hard work and camaraderie and not always getting what you want (WHY COULDN’T I JUST PLAY SHORTSTOP EVERY GAME).

So where does the sad come in? This is also a sad film about inner-city kids. It’s a hard-knock life for them. (You have to wonder how much better off they’d be if they lived in the outer-city.) Kids in tough neighborhoods have to grow up so much faster than other kids do. A disproportionate number of them have to deal with family issues, violence, crime, etc. And perhaps most tragic of all, many do not experience the awesome funtimes of youth sports. Thank God for Sad Keanu.

My familiarity with this issue: I could write you a BOOK about sadness and youth sports. Chapters would include, “The Day We Somehow Lost in the Playoffs on a Walkoff Groundout,” “The Day I Got Concussed in a Soccer Game,” and “The Day I Realized Everyone Was Bigger than Me.” Similarly to Michael Jordan, I was cut from my middle-school basketball team. Unlike MJ, I did not go on to destroy everyone in basketball for the rest of my life. I settled for my local CYO team, for which everyone got to play. That was more my speed. 

As sad as my youth sports evolution was, I’m sure it does not compare to the experiences of the kids in Hardball. All of our local teams had uniforms and sponsors and fans. We played on nice fields, one of which had ivy covering the outfield walls, a la Wrigley Field. And our coaches were not degenerates.

I should also note that this is, bizarrely, one of the most-anticipated posts in the history of the blog. Apparently, this film is a cult favorite (a cult which might be more frightening than the one in Martha Marcy May Marlene). Specifically, FsOTB Pat Ambrosio and Ted Lynch have been gunning for this one for months. You’ve gotten your wish. Eat it up, fellas.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: "An aimless young man who is scalping tickets, gambling and drinking, agrees to coach a Little League team from the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago as a condition of getting a loan from a friend."

What I thought of the movie: I have been converted to the cult. This is one of the great sports movies of all time. Up there with Rocky IV. Just a wonderful time.

Of course at the same a lot of it is just so fantastically ridiculous. Keanu’s character is out-of-control. He is, as mentioned, a degenerate gambler, smoker, drinker and liar, frequently erratic and often apparently emotionally disturbed. Case in point: deeply in debt at the beginning of the film, he gets beat up outside a bar. Mid-beating, he says to his assailants, “You want to kick my ass? Nobody can kick my ass better than I can.” He then punches a car window, rams his head through the bar window, and collapses, waking up the next morning in jail. This is our hero.

Keanu goes to his friend’s fancy office to ask for a $12,000 loan to keep his thumbs unbroken. The friend hands him a check for $500. Keanu is confused. Then the friend says, “You’re going to coach a kids’ baseball team with me.” BOOM. The premise of the film explained in one sentence. It’s like if Obi-Wan said to Luke, “You’re going to become a Jedi, blow up the Death Star, and eventually defeat the Empire, and oh by the way Darth Vader is your dad.”

Keanu is promised $500 a week to take on this task. Oh and also it turns out that by “with me,” his friend meant “without me." So Keanu, a violent, shiftless, seemingly disturbed criminal, goes to the projects to meet his at-risk youth players. It's fine. All of the kids on this team have names out of Dickens: Jefferson Albert Tibbs, Miles Pennfield II, Wackford Squeers, Andre Ray Peetes. (Only one of those is actually from Dickens.) They seem to have no interest in playing baseball, which presents a problem when organizing a baseball team.

There’s a weird little sidebar where they need more kids to fill out the roster, so Keanu goes to try to sweet-talk teacher Diane Lane to let other kids on the team. She says they can do it if he helps them with their book reports. This, of course, requires him to read the/a book, which seems to trouble him. Hilariously he brings the book to the bar to read it. (The same bar at which he was beat up like ten minutes ago. Why wouldn’t you just go somewhere else? It’s Chicago. All they have there is sports bars.)

It was at this point in the movie I started to ask some serious questions. Such as: does Keanu have a job? Does he do anything other than gamble and scalp tickets with his buddy, Academy Award nominee John Hawkes? Are there no background checks for coaches in this league? Is he illiterate? Is that why this movie is sad? I was baffled.

At "practice," Keanu sits in the bleachers while the kids scuffle with each other. At this point in the film, it is really hard to conveniently forget about what a terrible role model Keanu is. (Eventually he [begrudgingly] gets out there and starts hitting grounders and shagging pop flies.) What I like about this film is that there is no indication of how this team gets better. No series of good practices, no training montages, nothing like that at all. One minute a pop-up literally falls on a kid’s head, the next minute they’re making diving catches and smacking line drives all over the park. Even Jefferson Albert Tibbs, a tubby asthmatic, starts looking like Prince Fielder. It’s incredible.

Before all that happens, they lose their first game and one kid quits, but then they start to turn it around in charming fashion (for example, their pitcher, who never takes off his headphones, bounces along to the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Dead Wrong” “Big Poppa” in order to get into his pitching rhythm). They set their sights on going to the “‘ship” (as in “champion-”). It’s standard sports movie stuff, and its conventionality is a welcome respite from all the crazyballs Keanu gambling faff.

Speaking of which, after getting into more trouble with the bookies because he’s an idiot, Keanu bets his entire bankroll ($12,000) on the Heat... no wait the Bulls. He literally changes his mind while he’s on the phone placing the bet. It’s TWELVE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Wait until there’s something you feel really good about, and then bet on that! Don’t change your mind at the last minute! He is the WORST GAMBLER ever. (He also takes Diane Lane on a terrible date to the sports bar and almost instantly offends her, causing her to leave in a huff. A real winner, this guy.)

Back to the team. In another hallmark of the genre, one of the players is suspected of being too old, so Donald Trump Dr. Jerome Corsi another coach demands to see his birth certificate. The other coach also won’t let the Headphones Guy pitch with his headphones on, which of course robs him of his power. So Keanu throws a tantrum and quits mid-game. His behavior is becoming increasingly erratic, which is saying something when you recall that he began this film by smashing his head through a bar window.

After somehow winning that ridiculous bet, he realizes how important the kids are to him, and vice versa, so he finally swears off gambling (which is a lot easier to do when you've just won a $12,000 bet) and takes the kids to Wrigley Field Tiger Stadium (which in no way resembles Wrigley Field) to see the Cubs play baseball the way adults slightly older kids are capable of playing it. It's nice. Sammy Sosa makes a cameo, which proves that the lesson in this film so far is that all adult role models will eventually let you down. (Also it’s ironic that they go see the Cubs, a team that hasn’t been to the ‘ship since 1945.)

Attempting to get his house in order, Keanu also goes to the school to apologize to Diane Lane for his boorish behavior at their date. Lane accepts his apology, and pretty much offers him a job at the school. First off, she is just a teacher. She doesn’t have hiring and firing power! Second, he is still an erratic, possibly disturbed ne’er-do-well whose basic human decency toward inner-city kids is really his only positive quality. And third, if offending women and then sheepishly apologizing to them days later was an effective way of getting a job, then I would definitely not be unemployed right now.

How I related to the movie: Now this is where it starts to get really good. There’s baseball strategy and heartsrings-tugging and all of that. Try to keep up.

So they have to play the team with the mean coach who just beat them in order to make the ‘ship. It’s a tight, well-fought game, with a montage of great plays set to a hilariously edited version of “Party Up (Up In Here)” by DMX. (“Y'all remind me of a strip club / cause everytime you come around, it's like I just gotta get my [edited out].” Your what, DMX? Your eyebrows plucked? Your tummy tucked? Your corn shucked? I don’t know what you would have said here.)

It’s tied in the top of the sixth (and final) inning, and in a jam Keanu turns to Headphones Guy to preserve the tie. Headphones Guy, of course, can no longer wear his headphones, so he’s wary. Keanu leads the crowd in a rendition of “Big Poppa” to help him out, and he strikes the guy out on three pitches. Magic. We should have tried something like this with AJ Burnett.

(SPOILERS/the reason why this movie is sad coming up.) They put two runners on in the bottom of the inning with two out, and Keanu is forced to pinch-hit the pint-sized but lovable G-Baby (the younger brother of one of the real players) for the asthmatic Tibbs. And in an interesting but effective directorial choice, we cut to after the game. G-Baby and his brother head home to the projects, and find themselves in the middle of a shootout which tragically takes G-Baby’s life. POOR G-BABY! Oh how sad this is!

Yes it’s manipulative and probably unnecessary, like the endings of so many movies I’ve decried on this blog, but you know what? This is different. This is G-Baby. At the funeral, Keanu recounts the story of G-Baby’s heroic game-winning hit. It got dusty in here.

The next day, the players decide they want to play in the ‘ship, which the league was planning to cancel. They want to win it for G-Baby. And they do. Man, what a film.

How I felt after the movie ended: It was an emotional ride, this one. Full of utter nonsense and conventional inspirational-sports-movie tropes and Keanu Reeves acting like a lunatic. Yes, it might be an urban version of The Mighty Ducks with a ridiculous tragic ending tacked on, but it’s somehow more than that. Watching Keanu give the speech at G-Baby’s funeral, I swear I was lifted in that moment to a better place. I swear Keanu lifted the world at that moment. He made me a better person, even if just for that moment. I am forever grateful to Keanu for that.

2 comments:

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