The Rookie
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths, Brian Cox, Beth Grant, Jay Hernandez

John Lee Hancock

Writing credits: YMike Rich
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures * 129 minutes
Rated: G
  (USA 2002)

My father is not the most emotional of men. I don't think he ever really knew how to relate to children, particularly the female children he had. But on Father's Day in 1964, I sat with my father and watched Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies no-hit the hapless New York Mets, and from then on, my father and I had an interest in common that transcended gender, that transcended our own dysfunctional family, and that has transcended the nearly forty years that have transpired since.

Baseball, if you are lucky enough to appreciate its resonance, has a magic that no other sport has. It's a bucolic sport, played at its highest level on grassy fields that sit in the middle of concrete jungles. It's a kids' game that grown men make obscene amounts of money playing. As Trey Wilson said in portraying the manager of the Durham Bulls in Ron Shelton's 1988 BULL DURHAM, "This is a simple game. You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball." Oh yes, and you run around in a circle. Either you get baseball or you don't.

If you do, then you also have open to you the joys of the Baseball Movie. I have already expounded on this in the context of Billy Crystal's HBO film 61*, and this year we are treated to another joyous entry in the genre, John Lee Hancock's THE ROOKIE.

If there's one thing I hate, it's movies that try to yank my emotional chain. There are only two phenomena that I can forgive as manipulative devices in movies. One of them is a cute dog, and the other is baseball. Since MY DOG SKIP had me walking out of the theatre sobbing, I knew perfectly well I'd better deposit myself in a dark corner of the theatre for this one. And THE ROOKIE does not disappoint.

The story line of THE ROOKIE contains every cliche in the book; not just from baseball movies, but from every movie that purports to tell an Uplifting Story About Fulfilling Your Dreams. It's all here -- the quaint small town, the handsome, chiseled All-American face of the hero, the Noble Wife (the goddess Rachel Griffiths), the adorable children, the cute-as-a-button, steroid-free multiethnic high school baseball team (led by the drop-dead gorgeous Jay Fernandez), the loving mother, the distant military father (Brian Cox, last seen as a pedophile in L.I.E.), the Wide Texas Prairie, the quaint old guys down at the corner variety store who play dominoes and drink cokes in glass bottles. Hell, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY is playing at the local movie house when Our Hero moves into Big Lake Texas as a boy.

The story is the stuff of movies: Jim Morris is a high school chemistry teacher and coach of a baseball team in a football town, whose promising baseball career was cut short by an injury in the early 1980's. The adorable, clean-cut kids on his underdog baseball team make a deal with their aw-shucks coach that if it can turn its previous one-win seasons into a championship, he'll try out for the major leagues, because they know his Deep Dark Secret: that he has some serious fire on his fastball. Just how fast, they don't know, but we know it's 98 mph, a speed only a handful of major league pitchers ever achieve. Inevitably, the team wins, Coach goes to the tryouts, wows the scouts, toils through the minors and ends up fulfilling his dream, with his misty-eyed wife and adorable children watching adoringly from the stands.

I'm not kidding.

This is gag me with a spoon territory, right? It's THE MAJESTIC redux, right? Well, it would be if it weren't all true; well, except for two things: Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher (1999-2000) Jim Morris never really did time his pitches with one of those police "Your Speed" devices, and in his first major league game, he struck out Royce Clayton on four pitches, not three.

The amazing journey of Jim Morris is a hokey, uplifting, amazing story, and director Hancock has crafted a wonderfully hokey film that tugs shamelessly at the heartstrings, and you don't hate it for even one minute. Much of the film's success can be attributed to Dennis Quaid, a terrific actor who for some mysterious reason has never achieved the kind of success he deserves. Quaid is a natural in this sort of affable jock role, combining an All-American earnestness reminiscent of Gary Cooper with just a touch of snarky edge. He looks far younger than his age, and yet has an ageless, craggy quality. His rendition of Jim Morris shows a man who has long since made his peace with the limited life he leads, one completely bewildered at the seemingly impossible opportunity that has come his way.

Playing perfectly off of Quaid's family man is Rachel Griffiths as his wife Lorrie. Griffiths is one of the current wave of Australian actresses finding success in American roles. As this "Texas woman", Griffiths completely leaves her Brenda-the-nutjob character from SIX FEET UNDER behind, portraying Lorrie as the kind of sultry earth mother who hasn't forgotten how to make the bedsprings rattle reminiscent of the early 1980's Debra Winger. This marriage seems almost too good to be true, until the Cataclysmic Scene during which each partner in this couple veers from selfishness to selflessness, wrestling with the Gordian knot of dreams vs. responsibility.

A baseball movie, particularly one from Disney Studios, requires an appropriately adorable array of kids surrounding Our Hero, and this film doesn't disappoint. However, what makes Morris' high school baseballers so much fun is that once you get past Jay Hernandez, they're gawky and pimply and have bad hair, just like real teenagers. As Morris' own son, young Angus T. Jones amazingly manages to portray adorableness without once going over into mawkishness.

The team behind THE ROOKIE has impeccable schmaltz credentials. Screenwriter Mike Rich, who last brought us the insufferable FINDING FORRESTER, here manages to keep his trowel under control. Director John Lee Hancock, better known as a screenwriter (A PERFECT WORLD, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL) and producer (MY DOG SKIP), shows a gift for translating a Norman Rockwell vision of America to the screen. From the vast Texas sky to the pumping oilwells to the worshipful camera treatment of the massive House that Smirk Built Using His Daddy's Buddies' Money, Arlington Stadium, Hancock understands the mythology surrounding the sport of baseball, one without which a true Baseball Movie cannot exist.

Because this is a Disney film, professional baseball is depicted as an environment in which no one curses, no one spits tobacco, and there are no groupies hanging around the restaurants where minor leaguers chow down on ribs and beer. It's a testament to just how well THE ROOKIE works that this seems perfectly normal.


- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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