THE ROOKIE (2002)
Dennis Quaid brings the everyman heat in a baseball movie that deserves a top spot in the sports flick pantheon.
There is nothing quite so cinematically satisfying as when hokum works, really works. It reminds us that there are things in life worth getting misty-eyed about, and that we count on movies for that reminder. And, of course, the end result is that we realize what got us all choked up may not have been hokum after all. That’s the ride one takes when watching The Rookie, an unexpectedly complex and even epic examination of the grunt work involved in doing one’s best.
Going in, we might well have our guard up. This is, after all, a live-action Disney family film. Our bodies tense up in anticipation of the cute, the maudlin and the just plain awkward. We might crave the smart-ass tone of Bull Durham or the only-guys-get-it vibe of Field of Dreams. But between the just-right sentimentality of the script (by Mike Rich), the unashamedly loving hand of director John Lee Hancock and a cast that is clearly giving their all, it isn’t long before we start happily letting this singular effort do its thing.
Dennis Quaid plays Jimmy Morris, the real-life rural Texas high school chemistry teacher who got called back to major league baseball at the age of 35. (Okay, we know that Quaid hasn’t seen 35 in a while, but the movie never mentions Morris’ specific age, so whip out your suspension of disbelief and enjoy yourself.) Sure, this is an uplifting, ready-made-for-the-movies tale if ever there was one, but the real achievement of The Rookie is that it takes us through something; from a boyhood dream, to the germ of the idea of a comeback, to the several trials that have to be endured before it is achieved. Plus, the film takes its time in introducing, and building, the father/son and husband/wife relationships that end up making us so invested in these characters’ fates.
An extended prologue shows the young Morris coping with the constantly moving life of a military brat, and a father (the always great Brian Cox) whose only advice is for him to stop whining. Needless to say, the strain of this relationship into adulthood (Morris still calls his pop “sir”) is one of the threads that will need to be tied up in order to get us crying when the overly-orchestrated musical score swells near the end. And damn it if it doesn’t do just that. There is also the very convincing portrayal by Quaid and his onscreen wife Rachel Griffiths of a hard-working couple who are not quite sure what to do in the face of such a monumental new challenge.
And the challenge itself does not come easy. When the kids on the school baseball team that Morris coaches (fine bunch of young actors all) stumble upon just how fast their teacher can pitch, they cut a deal with him: if they get off their butts and win a championship, he has to try out for the majors—even though an injury of twenty years ago (not to mention that wife and three kids) have prevented him from ever thinking such far-fetched thoughts again.
So, what begins as just another underdog sports movie about the rag tag misfits going all the way soon veers into a second act depicting Morris’ personal journey into a world he is not even sure he can handle (a long slog in the minor leagues and its attendant hardships, especially on an “old guy”, is something rarely explored in a feel-good sports movie). By the time we get to the rousing, manipulative happy ending, we are more than willing to let down our guard because we have truly shared a chunk of someone’s life in the course of this film. It’s always rewarding when there is actually a sweeping, effective sense of purpose to a running time of over two hours.
Hancock takes the time to set up some terrific wide establishing shots that really place us in Morris’ dusty Texas town, and he gets a whole bunch of touching and naturalistic performances out of a huge ensemble cast that includes not only the kids from the team, but a trio of plucky townie guys, Jimmy’s divorced mother and the guys on the AAA ball circuit in the final third of the story. And the kid actor Angus T. Jones as Morris’ son Hunter (the reason Jimmy finally decides to reach for his dream) provides just the right amount of infectious adorableness without being sticky-sweet.
John Schwartzman’s lighting offers plenty of gorgeous frames, and if Hancock relies a little too much on montages and Carter Burwell’s sometimes in-your-face score (although it also contains lots of nice small acoustic riffs that are excellent), he can be forgiven in the long run, since he delivers such an overall pleasing product.
Finally, it is Dennis Quaid who brings us along for this voyage of a somewhat broken man very reluctantly dipping a toe into the waters of a second chance. It is one of the actor’s most graceful, subtle and nuanced performances. About halfway through the story, Quaid’s Morris drives his pick up to a quiet road in the middle of the night and whips a baseball past one of those neon speed monitors to see if he can still throw a fastball. It is a truly inspired invention by the filmmakers, and it is Quaid who sells it, with awkwardness and a vulnerability that is not easy to convey in a scene without dialogue. It is typical of his work in The Rookie, a movie that just about knocks it out of the park.
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