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‘Hardball’ makes contact

Will you like Keanu Reeves' new baseball movie "Hardball"? Page 2's Bill Simmons says that all depends on where you stand on Reeves.

When Hollywood studios “greenlight” potential movies, it usually happens for one of three reasons:

  1. They like the script.

  2. A marketable actor or director has already attached themselves to the project.

  3. The “pitch” worked.

Well, Hollywood rarely produces good scripts, as we’ve learned over the years. And marketable actors/directors aren’t exactly falling out of trees. For most projects, it’s all about the pitch — if you can’t describe the movie’s plot and make it seem like a potential winner in one measly sentence, Hollywood studios won’t waste their time.

I mention this only because Hardball probably had one of the easiest pitch sessions in Hollywood history:

Producer: “We just bought the rights to Daniel Coyle’s book about coaching baseball in a Chicago ghetto.”

Exec: “Intriguing. What’s the pitch?”

Producer: “We’re going to turn the coach into a drunken, degenerate gambler who turns his life around with the help of these city kids. Think ‘Bad News Bears’ crossed with ‘The White Shadow’ crossed with ‘Dangerous Minds.’ ”

Exec: “I like it! Who do you have in mind for the coach?”

Producer: “Well, I don’t want to jinx it, but Keanu Reeves is interested for the right price.”

Exec: “Keanu coaching the Black Bad News Bears???? Where do I sign up?”

It happens that fast.

Strangely enough, “Hardball” turned out to be a pretty entertaining movie. Looking back, I made an easy target for the “Hardball” producers — given that I liked “Dangerous Minds,” loved “Bad News Bears” and revered “The White Shadow;” given that I enjoy pretty much every sports movie, regardless of how it ranks on the CPC (Cheesy, Predictable & Cliched) Scale; and given that I’ve always enjoyed the Keanu Experience and everything that goes with it — but, in the interests of objectivity, I dragged my buddy JackO along with me, and he enjoyed the movie as well. And he’s a tougher audience than me.

Speaking of JackO, before we tackle the film, let’s pay a quick tribute to him for accompanying me to the movie. For one thing, we were the only adult males in our theater who weren’t accompanying small children, so everyone else naturally assumed that we were the co-chairmen of the Keanu Reeves All-Male Fan Club in the Boston Area… not that there’s anything wrong with that. And the last time JackO and I went to the movies together, we saw “Heaven’s Prisoners” with Alec Baldwin, and I ruined Teri Hatcher’s nude scene for him.

Here’s what happened: I had read in a newspaper review of “Prisoners” that Hatcher’s first scene came out with a bang. According to the review, Baldwin was pulling his car into a mansion’s driveway and a completely naked Hatcher stepped out on a balcony to greet him. Needless to say, since Hatcher was in her “Still hot before she started making those ghastly Radio Shack ads” phase, JackO and I read that review at 2:20 on a Saturday afternoon and made it in time for the 3:25 showing that same day.

So we were sitting there waiting for Hatcher’s big scene … about 30 minutes passed. I was chowing down a big box of popcorn when a scene ends and suddenly Baldwin was driving down a long driveway, followed by an exterior shot of a mansion. Knowing Hatcher’s eye-opening entrance was looming, for some reason I lost all control of my limbs, causing me to jostle in my seat so violently that I dropped the entire box of popcorn all over the floor. I’m not making this up.

Instinctively, JackO reached down to pick up the popcorn box … and as he was getting it, a naked Hatcher pranced out on the balcony. And JackO missed the whole thing. Six years have passed and he’s still ticked off about it. Anyway, just dragging him back to the movies with me was a bigger feat than anything.

***** ***** *****

As for “Hardball,” I can pretty much guarantee that your kids will enjoy the movie if they’re under 13. If you’re over the age of 13, you probably won’t enjoy this movie as much, unless you enjoy The Keanu Experience in general (more on this later).

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Keanu plays Conor O’Neill, a ticket scalper who has a gambling problem and a drinking problem, along with one more problem: He can’t act. After Keanu falls behind on payments to a couple of Chicago-area bookies, a wealthy stockbroker offers him $500 a week to coach a ghetto baseball team. Desperate for cash, Keanu accepts. And after dodging a few landmines over the first few weeks, he turns the team around, turns his life around, makes a difference, wins The Big Game and scampers off to film “The Matrix 2.” The end.

Some quick notes that I jotted down in a darkened movie theater:

  • You might remember that “Hardball” director Brian Robbins also directed the enjoyable football movie “Varsity Blues” three years ago, even ad-libbing the idea for Ali Larter’s Human Ice Cream Sundae (which launched him to his rightful place among Coppola, Kubrick and Scorcese, in my opinion). More importantly, Robbins seems to have a knack for directing sports movies — his movies cruise along at the right pace and his sports scenes always get the job done.

    (One nitpick: “Hardball” had too many spectacular fielding plays during the game sequences, enough to fill an entire edition of “The Plays of the Week” on SportsCenter. Apparently, it’s illegal to make any baseball movie without including 12-15 miraculous fielding plays, even a movie featuring 9- and 10-year-olds. In case you’re scoring at home, this is a distant cousin of the “All Characters in Basketball Movies Must Have the Ability to Dunk” rule, even if they’re Woody Harrelson or Ed Norton. Drives me crazy.)

  • The child actors acquit themselves nicely here, especially the token fat kid (Julian Griffith, who plays the asthmatic first baseman, Jefferson), the hard-throwing pitcher who gets psyched on the mound by listening to Biggie Smalls on his Walkman (A. Delon Ellis Jr. as Miles) and the token smack-talking runt with a heart of gold (DeWayne Warren as G-Baby) who vacillates between paying homage to Tanner (Bad News Bears), Arnold Jackson (Diff’rent Strokes) and Ollie (Hoosiers) at various points of the movie.

  • I liked the fact that they didn’t “soften” the language here; the kids spat out a few swear words, talked some smack and sounded like they were auditioning for “Friday: The Next Generation” at times.

  • Thumbs up for the soundtrack, especially the use of Biggie’s classic hit “Big Poppa” as an actual plot device. Well-done. Throw ya hands in the air, if you’s a big player …

  • One surprise casting move: They brought in Diane Lane for the token “attractive schoolteacher with a chip on her shoulder who’s inexplicably single” role, which might have been a good move if this were 1988. Lane looks a little weathered here, and she’s trying a little too hard throughout the movie. In her defense, trying to drum up sexual tension with Keanu Reeves for two hours could wear anyone out.

    (Note: This would have been the perfect part for Pete Sampras’s wife. Seriously. She’s already mastered the “cute, wholesome schoolteacher” routine in Billy Madison, she looks good and she could have done the “Pete just broke Andre!” leaping fist-pump routine during every baseball scene. A no-brainer.)

  • My favorite dumb scene: Keanu takes the kids out for pizza and the bill comes to $46, prompting him to offer loge seats for an upcoming Mavs-Bulls game in exchange for the pizza … which the pizza guys behind the counter eagerly accept. Yeah, right. What’s the street value of Mavs-Bulls tickets duriung the Tim Floyd Era … three bucks? Apparently, we entered the NBA Matrix during this scene.

  • Surprise of the movie: No Danny Almonte-style subplots were hastily written in during post-production. Thank God.

    bill simmons

  • One big headscratcher here: Where was the “This team is coming together!” montage scene where Keanu doles out instructions and advice during practice,
    a la Mike Leak in “Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”? That’s a staple of every rags-to-riches sports movie! How did they miss that one?

  • The number of That Guys in the cast was extremely disappointing. One of the gambling bigwigs also played a mafioso on “Oz,” but that doesn’t really
    count (even if Adebici stuck him with an AIDS-infected needle). We did have “The Guy Who Always Plays Ed Burns’s Conniving Brother in Any Ed Burns
    Movie.” The guy who always has his hair slicked back and works on Wall Street? You know … That Guy? In “Hardball,” he plays a fast-talking Wall
    Street stockbroker. Big stretch for him.

    Also, he’s probably not a classic That Guy, but D.B. Sweeney plays the “Vic Morrow in Bad News Bears role” role as the hissy coach of the rival team;
    you probably best remember D.B. as Shoeless Joe in “Eight Men Out” and the skater from “The Cutting Edge” (which I always thought was one of the more
    watchable chick flicks of the past 10 years). Not sure where the wheels came off for D.B. over the years. You know he must hate John Cusack.

  • One thing I really liked about this movie: Keanu makes an enormous basketball wager midway through the movie to erase his gambling debts — one
    of those, “If I win, I’m clear; if I lose, I’m skipping town” wagers — and he actually wins it. That never happens in Hollywood! It’s about time a
    movie or TV show glorified gambling for all those aspiring gamblers out there, dammit. Big day.

  • The filmmakers captured the desolate feel of the Chicago projects really well. One of the more memorable scenes unfolds after Keanu ends practice too
    late, causing some of the kids to trek home after dark. And, of course, the asthmatic kid lives in a shaky housing project, and he’s carrying home a box
    of pizza, and, well … you can guess what happens next. Manipulative? Absolutely. But it works.

  • One random athlete cameo: Keanu takes the kids to a Cubs-White Sox game and Sammy Sosa does that hand signal/chest thump thing for them, prompting
    JackO to quip, “He’s showing more acting range than Keanu.”

  • As you know, it isn’t officially a sports movie unless you get goosebumps at some point (a k a, The Chill Scene Factor). Two scenes in “Hardball” gave
    me chills, both near the end — the scene when they run out on the field with their new uniforms and the Ollie/Hoosiers homage with G-Baby.

    Speaking of the ending, I won’t spoil it except to mention two things: A) It’s a genuine curveball, and B) some of the people in my movie theater
    weren’t just crying, they were sobbing. I’m not kidding. Even JackO got a little choked up, although he denied it later. And the ending was
    dramatic enough that it even inspired a lively monologue from Keanu, of all people.

    (As Pete Carroll would say, “I’m as shocked as you guys!”)

    ***** ***** *****

    And that brings us to Keanu, who deserves his own section to celebrate his years of achievement in Hollywood. Whether you like “Hardball” or not probably rides on one question: “Where do you stand on Keanu Reeves?”

    Let’s face it … he’s had an intriguing career. Not since the heyday of Sly Stallone has a Hollywood star managed to be this cheesy, endearing, overwhelmed, likable, wooden, improbable, charismatic and unwittingly entertaining, all at the same time. I defy you to find another actor working today who rates higher on the Unintentional Comedy Scale … and yet somehow he always seems to land plum roles. It’s absolutely uncanny. Keanu has been so successful that he even spawned an imitator — the wildly untalented
    Freddie Prinze Jr., who’s like Keanu Lite. And Keanu’s made enough of an impact that I find myself watching cheesy action movies and saying to
    myself, “This definitely should have been a Keanu part” (with Paul Walker’s limp FBI agent in “Fast and the Furious” being the latest example).

    The strangest thing about Keanu’s career is that he played Ted and Evil Ted in the sequel to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” which foreshadowed
    what would happen during the next 10 years of his career … when he unleashed Lively Keanu and Wooden Keanu on the American public.

    I’ll explain.

    Wooden Keanu basically announces from the first scene of a movie, “I’m going on auto-pilot.” “Sweet November,” “The Watcher,” “Chain Reaction,” “Johnny Mnemonic,” “Dracula” … the list goes on (and on), and you can tell pretty much immediately when he’s mailing it in. The worst thing about Wooden Keanu? They never alert you ahead of time in the movie trailers. Basically, you have to roll the dice, spend the money and see for yourself.

    (Note: Wooden Keanu hasn’t made a likable movie yet, with the possible exception of “The Replacements,” the most perversely entertaining Bad Sports Movie since “Karate Kid 3.” But that’s a story for another time.)

    Lively Keanu … now, there is where the fun begins. This version of Keanu can’t act either, but at least he’s throwing himself into the role and trying to act (“Parenthood,” “Speed,” “Devil’s Advocate” and “The Matrix” are four splendid examples). When you think about it, that’s exactly what makes the whole Keanu Experience so enjoyable, isn’t it? That’s why we can watch a movie like “Point Break” over and over again, for those over-the-top scenes when Keanu is shouting out, “Bodhi … I am an Eff Bee Eye AGENT!” or when he’s hanging in front of a blue screen and pretending to parachute (“Whoaaaaaa!”).

    Fortunately for us, Lively Keanu shows up for “Hardball” and probably pushes it over the top. For instance, if the producers had cast Ed Norton as the
    coach, “Hardball” would have been a more polished movie — with Ed doing his “Worm from Rounders” routine — and it wouldn’t have been nearly as much
    fun. Watching Keanu play a troubled, hard-drinking, chain-smoking gambler, especially when he smokes like a 12-year-old trying to look cool outside a
    convenience store … I mean, can you put a price on that in the comedy department? It almost made up for the fact that the moviemakers didn’t make
    Keanu’s character even remotely likable.

    During the film, I kept count of the number of times Keanu made either me or JackO giggle out loud during an allegedly dramatic scene … the final tally
    was 14. Invariably, I found myself rooting for him, even as he stammered through scenes, grimaced, squinted his eyes and inexplicably threw his hands
    up and freaked out for no reason. When it comes right down to it, there’s nobody quite like Keanu Reeves making movies today. God bless him.

    And just remember, if you want to take someone with you to see the movie, and they’re putting up a fight, just give them an old-fashioned Hollywood pitch:

    “Here’s all you need to know: Keanu coaches the Black Bad News Bears … and Sports Guy said it wasn’t half-bad.”

    FINAL GRADE: Line-drive single.

    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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