HARDBALL — * 1/2 — Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, John Hawkes, A. Delon Ellis Jr., Julian Griffith, Michael B. Jordan, DeWayne Warren, D.B. Sweeney, Mike McGlone; rated PG-13 (profanity, violence, vulgarity, brief gore, brief drug use); see the "On the Screen" column on Page W2 for complete listing of local theaters.
The drama "Hardball" may be based on a true story, but that doesn't mean that everything in the movie rings true.
In fact, this film is so artificial, so contrived and so full of itself, it not only makes you wonder exactly how the real-life events that inspired the movie occurred, but it also makes you wonder if anything can be believed in this highly fictionalized piece.
Even more amazingly, the film seems all too eager to compare itself to other works by swiping wholesale elements from such sources as "Pay it Forward" and "Remember the Titans." Unfortunately, it's not nearly as good as either of them. (Even the movie's September release date suggests the studio is hoping it will turn out to be this year's "Titans." Fat chance.)
You also have to fault the filmmakers' choice of stars, especially the wooden Keanu Reeves, who plays Conor O'Neill, a Chicago gambling addict and ticket scalper living on the edge. He's perilously close to losing limbs, if not his life, to bookies all over the city. Fortunately, a former friend (Mike McGlone) agrees to help pay off some of his debts if he'll coach the Kekambas, a Little League baseball team with players from the projects.
Conor isn't exactly thrilled by this prospect, but to his surprise, the kids take to him. Even more surprisingly, they start winning games, despite their constant bickering.
Things are going so well with Conor that he even starts seeing a local schoolteacher (Diane Lane), who's interested in seeing the boys succeed.
On the surface, this might sound a bit like "The Bad News Bears," but this is much harder-edged than that. Not that it's all that gritty and realistic, mind you (in fact, the movie was clipped slightly to receive a more family-friendly PG-13 rating).
Worse, John Gatins' cliche-ridden script (based on Daniel Coyle's book "Hardball: A Season in the Projects") concentrates on perhaps the least interesting and appealing character of the lot — the rather unrepentant and unlikely coach.
Of course, having the alternatively hammy and stoic Reeves play the part wasn't the smartest move to begin with. (Despite being unwashed, he won't convince anyone he's a lowlife.)
That said, the youths playing the Kekambas are quite good, especially scene-stealer DeWayne Warren, who plays the youngest team member. But he and the others are just secondary characters in what should probably be their story.
"Hardball" is rated PG-13 for frequent use of profanity, violence (gunfire and bar brawls), crude and sexually suggestive talk, brief gore and brief simulated drug use (a fleeting scene of a crack-cocaine user). Running time: 112 minutes.