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Film review: Stealing Home

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Though well-intentioned and with a few touching moments, "Stealing Home" is a superficial soaper that manipulates the audience - in the worst sense of that word - when it shoots for tearjerking drama and lifts most of its attempts at comedy from "The Summer of '42" for its early flashback sequences.

"Stealing Home" is well-made, however, and may benefit from its baseball subplot since "Bull Durham" seems to have revived audience interest in the movies' use of that sport. (Other "baseball movies" are on the way.)

Mark Harmon is the nominal star here, but two other actors playing his character at younger stages of life get equal if not more screen time. In fact, Jodie Foster, though listed seventh (with "special billing"), seemed to be on screen longer than any other single actor, and her character hovers over the entire film.

Harmon narrates the proceedings as Billy Wyatt, whom we first meet as a 30ish pro ball player. An immediate flashback takes us to the recent past where we see Wyatt bumming on skid row, living with a cocktail waitress. He gets a phone call from his mother (Blair Brown) that his childhood best friend Katie (Foster) has committed suicide and left a will putting Billy in charge of her cremated ashes.

As Billy reluctantly returns home to fulfill his responsibility he daydreams and we flash back (within the flashback) to his baseball-obsessed youth, and his relationship with Katie, and to a lesser degree with his Dad (John Shea).

Katie is wild and free-spirited and, at first anyway, keeps her friendship with Billy strictly on a buddy level.

It is at this point, and through the bulk of the film's centerpiece, that the movie deteriorates into a teenage romp - especially with the character of Billy's best friend Appleby, played by Jonathan Silverman as a blatant recreation of his sex-obsessed geek in "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

Billy and Appleby both lose their virginity in comic sequences that seem to derail the film's charm and it never really fully recovers. In terms of storytelling, however, "Stealing Home" also never explores its characters deeply enough to give us more than a passing glance at why they feel the way they do about themselves.

Katie is tragic, but always on the surface. And when another pivotal death occurs, the emotion is muted by its abruptness and our lack of sufficient empathy for the characters. A later scene that uses old home movies to recall this second death manages to hit the audience harder, but by then it's too late.

"Stealing Home" wants to be moving and profound but too often settles for superficial and silly. By the time Billy comes to understand why Katie put him in charge of dispensing with her remains we don't care enough to want to stick around for it.

The casting is quite wonderful, from Harmon and Foster down to much smaller parts played by Helen Hunt, Harold Ramis (as the older Appleby) and Brown. And on a technical level the film is most admirable. First-time directors Steven Kampmann and Will Aldis, who also collaborated on the script (as they did for "The Couch Trip," "Back to School" and others) have also been actors, and their ability to pull believable, charming performances out of their cast is commendable, but their script isn't up to the talent they have pooled.

"Stealing Home" is rated PG-13, though that seems rather tame considering the amount of sex, nudity, profanity and vulgarity involved here.