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‘Catch’ drops the ball

The Sports Guy says "Summer Catch" could have been a good sports movie, but ...

You might recognize the new baseball movie “Summer Catch” for one simple reason: You’ve already seen it. You were subjected to the same “Good-natured, MTV-styled pseudo-comedy crammed with hot chicks, cheap laughs, decent sports scenes and sex-crazed athletes” gimmick two years ago with “Varsity Blues.” And if you think that formula will fade away, you’re crazy.

bill simmonsBefore we tackle the merits of “Catch,” here’s a quick history lesson for you …

Everyone associates the late-’70s with the Disco Era, but few remember that it was also the golden era of sports movies. After “Rocky” and “The Bad News Bears” struck chords with mainstream audiences in 1976, a predictable glut of sports movies followed … and all of them ended up being memorable in their own way. Check out seven of the sports movies released between 1977 and 1980 (in order of release):

  • “Slap Shot”
  • “One on One”
  • “Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”
  • “North Dallas Forty”
  • “The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh”
  • “Fast Break”
  • “Caddyshack”

Eye-opening, isn’t it? I’ve probably seen those seven movies a combined 324,591 times. And with the exception of “North Dallas Forty,” each movie adhered to a specific formula which, for the purposes of this column, we’ll all the CYESMF (Cheesy-Yet-Endearing Sports Movie Formula):

1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

2. Go for the emotional hook if it’s there, but not for long.

3. Always go for the easy laugh.

4. Bring in at least one recognizable star.

5. Don’t worry about authentic sports scenes.

6. Don’t worry about being politically correct.

Inevitably, that formula evolved over the past two decades. First of all, today’s sports movies place a much bigger premium on authentic-looking game scenes. Over the years, fans have become too cynical and too wise — you can’t have scenarios anymore like that memorable moment in “Fish,” when the camera shows Driftwood shooting a 15-footer and somehow standing underneath for the rebound in the same sequence.

The other big difference is that today’s comedies sidestep any of those political correctness land mines; poking fun at somebody’s sexual preference or ethnicity isn’t worth the subsequent negative press and publicity. That’s why a character like Tanner (the 12-year-old racist shortstop from “Bad News Bears”) wouldn’t see the light of day, unless somebody like Todd Solondz was directing that remake. Not likely. And an over-the-top urban movie like “Fast Break” — littered with racial jokes and drug use — wouldn’t make it past pre-production without a few “friendly” re-writes.

Filling the void on that end? The overwhelmingly successful “Guys Being Guys” mini-industry, which is personified by Maxim Magazine, the “Man Show,” MTV’s “Spring Break,” Opie & Anthony and everything else. We live in a society where everything is moving closer and closer to the edge — music, clothes, sexual standards, conversation, you name it — and the people promoting those values are younger and younger every week. And this freedom allows today’s sports movies to maintain that cheesy-yet-entertaining edge.

With that in mind, here’s the updated CYESMF for the 21st century:

1. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

2. Go for the emotional hook if it’s there, but not for long.

3. Always go for the easy laugh.

4. Bring in at least one recognizable star.

5. Make your sports scenes as authentic as possible.

6. When in doubt, emphasize hot chicks, partying, sex and guys being guys.

When “Varsity Blues” parleyed that formula into decent reviews and a lively box office, you knew Hollywood would start cranking out replicas even before Tweeder dumped off the game-winning lateral to Billy-Bob in the final scene. You knew it.

That brings us back to “Summer Catch,” which premieres in theaters across America this weekend. The first of the “Blues” ripoffs, it’s a movie that manages to remain entertaining, disappointing, likable and utterly forgettable, all at the same time.

Here’s a scouting report:

The plot in a nutshell
Cape Cod native Ryan Dunne (Freddie Prinze Jr.) has a few handicaps working against him — he has dropped out of two colleges, he’s still battling residual effects from his Mom’s death, he mows lawns for his Dad’s landscaping company, his hometown friends are drunken screw-ups, he self-destructs during games and he’s being played by Freddie Prinze Jr. — but despite all that, he’s getting one last chance to pitch for his hometown Chatham A’s this summer.

For the romantic twist, our hero falls for Tenley (Jessica Biel), the token “ravenously attractive rich chick who’s also really nice and doesn’t exist in real life in any way, shape or form” female lead. Needless to say, since Freddie mows lawns for a living, her wealthy father doesn’t want his daughter dating him and sabotages the relationship.

Will Freddie self-destruct? Will he find love with Tenley? Will he impress a major-league scout? Will he be stuck mowing lawns for the rest of his life?

Hokey Baseball Grade: Line-drive single.

Originality factor
Pretty low. We’ve already traveled the rowdy/raucous sports flick route with “Varsity Blues.” We’ve been down the Pete Mitchell Memorial “self-destructive star who finds love, finds himself and finally puts it together” road a million times in Hollywood (especially with sports movies). And the “rich girl’s family who doesn’t like the poor boyfriend” routine has been done to death, hasn’t it?

Anyone expecting a lively, original glimpse of life in the Cape Cod Baseball League will be sorely disappointed.

(All three of you.)

Hokey Baseball Grade: Called third strike.

Star power I actually liked Prinze in “Catch” more than I’ve liked him in any other movie, which isn’t saying much, because I’ve never liked him in any other movie. He has always been one of those “Table Guys” for me — I’m not exactly sure what he brings to the table. He doesn’t take anything off the table, but he doesn’t bring much, either. If you have breasts, you probably feel differently.

(At least Freddie finally broke his string of appearing in unwatchable romantic comedies with three-word titles. I mean, let’s face it … you know you’re whipped when your girlfriend picks out a Freddie Prinze Jr. movie at Blockbuster and you find yourselves saying, “OK.” There should be a support group for this.)

As for the yummy Biel, she’s wildly attractive, a cross between Alyssa Milano and Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend in “The Replacements,” but with Ali Larter’s body. How’s that for a scouting report? I saw an advance screening of this movie in Boston last Monday; there’s one scene when Biel and Freddie go night-swimming in the rain. And lemme tell you something, as soon as every male moviegoer realized Biel’s T-shirt was potentially see-through if it got wet, you could have cut the tension in the theater with a chainsaw. Easily the most dramatic moment of the movie.

So Biel and Freddie look cute together and share some definite romantic chemistry. As for their acting … well, you won’t be leaving the theater comparing them to Hoffman and Streep in “Kramer vs. Kramer.” I’m not even sure you’ll be comparing them to Dale DaBone and Chloe.

Hokey Baseball Grade: Groundball single up the middle.

The subplots
Lots of them, including: the goofball sidekick catcher who almost can’t hack the Cape Cod League … the disenchanted father and brother who secretly root for Freddie to fail … the grizzled coach who won’t trust Freddie … the Latino infielder who’s staying at a promiscuous divorcee’s house for the summer … the loser hometown buddies with hearts of gold … the All-American guy with a penchant for heavy chicks … Curt Gowdy doing Chatham radio play-by-play … the fact that Curt Gowdy is still around.

(Note: My favorite subplot involved Freddie’s pseudo-nemesis — bonus baby pitcher Eric Van Reimer — who spends the entire movie doing a poor man’s imitation of Val Kilmer in “Top Gun.” You keep waiting for him to walk behind Freddie, start sniffing, glance up in the air a few times and finally say, “I’m sorry about Goose … (sniff) … everybody liked him.”)

Hokey Baseball Grade: Line-drive single.

Supporting performances Some good ones in here, especially from Matthew Lillard, who stole just about every one of his scenes as Dunne’s catcher, Billy Brubaker. You might remember Lillard pulling off the same skinny/goofy/maniac role in “Scream” and every other movie in which he’s appeared — Lillard’s like the Caucasian version of Tek from “Real World: Hawaii” — but he’s mastered that gimmick at this point. Give this guy a sitcom, please.

Also, the always-underrated Gabriel Mann (the rat in the cult classic “Outside Providence”) plays one of Freddie’s no-life hometown buddies, belting out a key speech near the end (more on this later). And Brittany Murphy plays the token “local waitress/bimbo” role to a tee. You might remember her as Cher’s pet makeover project in “Clueless”… she’s come a long way, as they say (a potential foe for Lance Berkman and Tracy McGrady for the 2001 “Most Improved Player” ESPY next February).

Some pseudo-name actors make appearances as well, including Fred Ward, John C. McGinley, Beverly D’Angelo and Brian Dennehy (who plays the baseball coach and looks like he grabbed the role to prove that he didn’t actually die during the wedding in “Tommy Boy”). Maybe the strangest appearance comes from “Iron Eagle” star Jason Gedrick, who unveils a dreadful Boston accent as Freddie’s bartending brother (they should have had Lou Gossett tending bar with him, just for comedy’s sake).

As an added bonus, “That Guy” plays Tenley’s evil Dad. You know … That Guy. It just wouldn’t be a sports movie without one of Those Guys.

Hokey Baseball Grade: Double into the gap.

Maxim magazine factor Put it this way: Within the first five minutes of the movie, Prinze is lying on a pitcher’s mound, while a drunken woman pours beer into his mouth with her knees. About three minutes later, he’s wearing nothing but a thong. That pretty much sets the tone for the entire movie.

Again, if you’re looking for an enlightening, gripping movie about life in the Cape Cod League, keep looking.

Hokey Baseball Grade: Double into the gap.

Realism in sports scenes
Bitterly disappointing. The dugout conversations and mound debates were OK, but that’s about it. It’s one of those baseball movies where an outfielder makes a running catch, flies over the outfield wall as he’s catching the ball and hops right up on the other side, like he’s only been running for about 10 feet. That’s the baseball equivalent of having players dunk on 9-foot rims in a hoops movie, isn’t it? Drives me crazy.

As for the actors, everyone looks legitimate except Prinze; they tried to sell a Ron Guidry vibe about him, but his pitches were filmed so tightly that you could never gauge his real-life motion and delivery. Was the director intentionally hiding Freddie, because he didn’t look authentic enough? Sure seemed like it. Freddie was allegedly hitting the low-80s on the radar gun during the filming. If that’s true, why not provide us with one full-screen shot of him humming one over the plate, just to clear up any questions?

One other Freddie criticism: he takes the “self-destructive” gig too far, bulging his eyes and making goofy gestures every time things fall apart during games. Real pitchers carry themselves in more subtle ways — and I mean, all of them, from Greg Maddux to Pete Schourek. Rarely will they show emotion, and it’s a chore just to read their body language (slight frown, sagging shoulders, etc.). And yet Freddie was aping it up on the mound like John Rocker after three “Big One” coffees from Dunkin’ Donuts. Made no sense.

In retrospect, the producers should have brought struggling Red Sox reliever Derek Lowe onto the set to teach Freddie how to make his “things are falling apart and I can’t stop it” face — a k a, “The Derek Lowe Face.” Oh, well.

Hokey Baseball Grade: Pop out to left.

Comedy factor
Surprisingly solid. For anyone between the ages of 18 and 35, you’ll find tons of little guffaws and four or five out-loud laughs. Just trust me. With that said, I’m not sure if somebody like my Dad would make it through 20 minutes without getting up and walking out. Take that for what you will.

Hokey Baseball Grade: Line-drive single.

“Chill scenes” Any sports movie worth its salt has at least one “chill scene.” Rocky motioning for Apollo to continue in the 14th round of their first fight. Roy Hobbs plunking one off the lights. Paul Crewe gathering the Mean Machine by midfield for some last words before the final play. The Allies scoring that first goal against the Germans to cut the lead to 4-1. Jimmy Chitwood saying, “I’ll make it.”

You know what I mean. It doesn’t matter if it’s a minor chill or major goosebumps; as long as you’re feeling something, a sports movie is doing its job.

“Catch” has one minor chill scene, at least for me: Near the end of the movie, after Freddie’s been demoted to the bullpen and he’s thinking about quitting the team, he’s drinking with his two high school buddies and one of them (played by the aforementioned Gabriel Mann) implores him to keep pitching, one of those “you quit on your dreams, you’re quitting on our dreams, too” speeches. It’s actually quite effective and literally comes out of nowhere; probably the best scene in the movie.

Other than that, nothing comes even close. Not a good sign for a sports movie.

Hokey Baseball Grade: Groundout to short.

The ending

Good God.

Without giving too much away, the last 15 minutes ruined the movie for me. I always thought “White Men Can’t Jump” owned the worst sports movie ending of all-time, but “Catch” blows that baby away. It’s unfathomable. It’s beyond horrendous. In all honesty, it’s the worst idea you could have possibly dreamed up. I can’t say enough derogatory things about it. During the screening I attended, people were walking out shellshocked, like they had just seen a snuff film or something. I’m not kidding.

(Note: I’ll tackle this in detail on a later date, after more people have seen the movie.)

Hokey Baseball Grade: Swing and a miss.

Sports Guy’s final verdict
If this movie transformed into a starting pitcher for one game, it would have submitted a pitching line like this:

    IP H ER R BB K W

    7.1 9 5 5 2 7 (no decision)

Of course, those numbers wouldn’t tell the whole story; only the game summary could explain how “Catch” cruised along for seven innings before running out of gas in the eighth and allowing a game-tying home run.

Four things were most disappointing to me, in no particular order:

1. The realism of the sports scenes, especially Prinze’s mound antics and the lack of a hard-core baseball game scene.

2. The gawd-awful ending.

3. The fact that the producers advertised this as a sports movie, when it’s really more of a rowdy romantic comedy than anything.

4. The fact that there was enough good stuff in here that it could have been a quality sports movie with some tweaking.

Anyway, if you’re scoring at home, “Summer Catch” is a good-natured movie about a self-destructive pitcher that ends up self-destructing in the end. But don’t worry … if we know anything about this new generation of sports movies, we know that a similar movie will invade theaters within the next few months, embrace the CYESMF (Cheesy-Yet-Endearing Sports Movie Formula), strike many of those same rowdy notes and hopefully succeed where “Catch” failed.

That’s Hollywood for you. As long as there’s a formula, they’ll keep following it … even if takes them right off a cliff.

Final Hokey Baseball Grade: A 10-pitch at-bat, followed by a swing and a miss for strike three.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.

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Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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