As Hardball begins, Conor O’Neill (Keanu Reeves) is hitting bottom, or somewhere thereabouts. A hard-drinking, tough-talking, self-hating gambler, he owes money all over Chicago. Everyone is mad at him, except his buddy-codependent-enabler Ticky (John Hawkes): they spend their non-betting hours scalping tickets outside sports arenas or gulping beers at their favorite bar, Sluggers. Conor is so consigned to his pathetic existence that when an angry bookie sends a couple of kneecap-busters after him, he turns around and smashes his own fist through a car window, declaring triumphantly, “No one can kick my ass better than I can!” He ends up in jail with a bloody hand. You end up with one of those shots that you’ve seen a thousand times: the down-and-out hero behind bars, his head bowed and his options few.
Luckily for Conor—but unluckily for anyone who’s already a movie where the (white) adult earns his or her moral salvation by helping a bunch of underprivileged kids (say, Dangerous Minds, Music of the Heart, The Mighty Ducks)—he picks up the perfect soul-saving gig. He gets to coach a Little League team in the Cabrini Green housing projects. The kids’ background hasn’t made them surly though: they’re are all very sweet and really, they’re only looking for a father figure (several have mothers with speaking lines, but none have dads). Conor gets the job as a cast-off from childhood friend Jimmy (Ed Burns movie survivor Mike McGlone), now too rich and obnoxious to be bothered actually “giving back to the community” in quite the way he’s promised to do. Sitting behind his expensive desk, with his designer suit and slicked-back hair, Jimmy is thus cast as the unfeeling white guy, in place to give Conor the job, but more importantly, to make look a lot “better.” Since Conor has already shown himself to be unreliable, selfish, and obsessive about this gambling thing, Jimmy-the-plot-device does, theoretically, serve a purpose, but it’s sort of overkill. Conor is so movie star: he’s Keanu Reeves with slightly disheveled hair and a slick leather jacket.
Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane, John Hawkes, Trevor Morgan, D.B. Sweeney, Bryan Hearne, Julian Griffith, Michael B. Jordan, A. Delon Ellis, Jr., Michael Perkins, Brian Reed, DeWayne Warren, Mike McGlone
Conor meets Jimmy at the field, gets his bag of bats, balls, and mitts, and meets the kiddies, each of whom is just cute as can be and conveniently endowed with an identifying “trait” so the audience won’t have much trouble sorting out who’s who: Kofi (Michael Perkins) has a chip on his shoulder and is in special need of being won over by Coach; his little brother G-Baby (DeWayne Warren) is too young to play ball, and so mostly serves as the team’s “mascot” and Conor’s trash-talking liaison to the other boys; Jefferson (Julian Griffith) is adorably sensitive and (in case you need a literal marker for his vulnerability) asthmatic; Andre (Bryan Hearne) wears a tough-guy sweatband on his head and fights with Kofi, but soon is asking Conor to walk him into his building at night; and the lanky, phenomenally gifted pitcher Miles (A. Delon Ellis, Jr.) likes to wear his walkman on the mound, so he can bop to Biggie’s “Big Poppa.”
Some ruckus has recently been raised by Chicago Little League coach Robert Muzikowski and Chicago youth leader Al Carter, the real-life subjects of the inspiration for the film, Daniel Coyle’s nonfiction book, Hardball: A Season in the Projects. They tell the New York Daily News that their upset over the kids’ representations: “The kids are being portrayed as juvenile delinquents who constantly curse. They’re actually decent kids who behave themselves.”
Well, actually, the kids in the film do behave themselves (though the movie’s use of the cursing is irresponsible: apparently, it’s very funny to see short, cute boys unleash a stream of terrible language), and Conor is the delinquent. Besides that, the young actors are easily the best part of Hardball. Largely selected from local Chicago-area casting calls, they bring warmth and spontaneity to the proceedings, help that Reeves always needs (think: Sandy Bullock in Speed, or Larry Fishburne and Carrie Ann Moss in The Matrix). As per the requisites of the formula, Conor has a hard time at first: he sulks in the dugout while the kids play, they distrust him, and he distrusts them.
Then, one night he sends Jefferson home alone after dark (though the kids tell him it’s too late and Jefferson asks Conor to walk him home) and the poor thing gets beaten up by a couple of punks who steal his backpack. This scene relies on point-of-view shots (with Jefferson’s increasingly labored breathing on the soundtrack), as he peers out from a hiding place, then makes a break for his building’s front door, only to be tackled to the ground, wheezing and gasping. Cut to the hospital. Conor comes to visit because he feels really bad. Poor guy.
In order to get over it, Conor spends some time chatting up the boys’ do-gooding Catholic school English teacher, Elizabeth Wilkes (Diane Lane). She, like the kids, is at first suspicious of this guy, who obviously has neither a clue what he’s doing nor much interest in whether or not they can read. To prove himself to her, he reads A Wrinkle in Time and pronounces it a good book. Dude.
Whatever his dubious skills as a lover, Conor is a completely lame coach. In a film full of curious conveniences and ellipses, the most curious aspect is that it never shows Conor actually coach a lick. He just sits back in the dugout and crosses his arms, looking unhappy, until one kid gets on third base during a game, and Conor yells for him to run all the way home. And oh yes, he tells Miles to go ahead and wear his walkman while pitching: good work, Coach. Other than that, the players improve their game on their own. And soon enough, Conor and his players are cheering and hugging and high-fiving.
The fact that Conor is white means nothing, of course, except that he’s one in a long line of white characters who become “better people” because they meet adorable, courageous, noble, and/or doomed minority characters. Hardball is not shy about this point. During an egregiously manipulative sequence, one of the players is—inevitably—shot by a neighborhood gang on the eve of the Big Game. The movie tries to make some bizarre emotional sense of this event by intercutting the shooting with the last game this character actually plays (moving back and forth in time), in order to milk the last little teeny bit of emotion from the moment. Worse, this sequence occurs during Conor’s speech at the funeral service, before an all-black (plus Ms. Wilkes) audience, who tearily appreciate it when Conor says that the dead kid’s display of spirit on that last day “made me a better person.” I know this is supposed to be poignant, but frankly, it’s despicable.
Hardball is directed by Brian Robbins, who made the solid, independent hiphop documentary, The Show, which features a memorable live performance by Biggie Smalls. This may be the motivation for Hardball’s obvious appreciation for the music that inspires its kid-characters and potential kid-viewers (it has a pump-it, single-ready soundtrack, including “Hardball,” by Lil Bow Wow, Lil Wayne, Lil Zane, and Sammie). Still, how often does a mainstream movie take as its anthem a Biggie Smalls song? And to see the bleachers-full of parents (and Ms. Wilkes, again) putting their hands in the air like they’se true playas, well, it’s just a little too strange.