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Summer Catch

Director: Michael Tollin
Cast: Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jessica Biel, Matthew Lillard, Fred Ward, Jason Gedrick, Brittany Murphy, Bruce Davison, Brian Dennehy

(Warner Bros.; 2001)

Big Risks

As I was watching the aseptically insipid Summer Catch, I confess, my mind wandered. And I got to thinking, has Freddie Prinze, Jr. ever made an unarguably good movie? I couldn’t come up with one. I actually rather like I Know What You Did Last Summer, but I know many people who don’t. Prinze hasn’t had visibly good luck—or taste—when it comes to picking projects, say, Wing Commander (1999), Head Over Heels (2000), or (double blecch) Boys and Girls (2000). Some might argue that She’s All That (1999) was okay, and Rachel Leigh Cooke emerged pretty much unscathed, with a career, but Prinze’s part really did suck.


Still, I have hope. Not because he heroically bleached his hair for Scooby Doo (due out next year) and not because he’s affianced to Buffy. And certainly not because he’s the coverboy for Cosmo Girl!‘s “Sexiest Guys” issue (September 2001). I don’t really have a good reason to have hope, only that he might be jammed up by this “Freddie Prinze, Jr. movie” stage (and let’s hope that is very, very soon), past playing the cute-puppy romantic lead that he’s always paid to play, then I think he might have something else to offer. He’s never so lame as the roles and the movies he’s in, and so, I have hope. Against the odds.


In Summer Catch, his newest film, Prinze plays another sweet naif, this time a hometown boy makes good. Ryan Dunne has lived his entire life in Cape Cod, helping his dad Sean (Fred Ward) with his gardening-landscaping business and pitching baseball. A gifted pitcher, Ryan’s got a bit of an attitude problem, stemming from several traumas (his mom’s primary among them). When he gets scared, he gets mean and surly, mouths off and picks a fight. And so, he’s been kicked off a college team, and has a bit of a rep for being “difficult.” And then, he gets his big chance.


As Summer Catch begins, Ryan is embarking on a life-changing adventure: he’s been selected to pitch in the “elite” Cape Cod summer league, where all the promising college players play, hoping to be discovered by major league scouts. As he explains in his voice-over narration, Ryan is eager to be great and incidentally, to escape Cape Cod’s confines and his working class background. And so he spends the night on a pitcher’s mound, imagining that this will help him “focus” on what’s coming. Then his local-yokel friends (Gabriel Mann and Jed Robert Rhein) show up, with beers and perky town slut Dede (Brittany Murphy, fondly remembered as Tai from Clueless, a seriously talented actor who is still awaiting her break-out role). Ryan screws up: after having sex with Dede on the mound, he oversleeps the next morning, and arrives for the first day’s practice late and wearing her orange thong underwear.


Ha ha. The fatherly coach (Brian Dennehy) gives Ryan an appropriately hard time, but the movie, directed by first-timer Mike Tollin, has set its tone, irrevocably. Pitching supposedly means everything to Ryan, and yet he can’t help but mess up, repeatedly. Almost instantly, Ryan is immersed in a competitive enmity with spiky-haired, ice-wearing, bad-boy-affecting super-pitcher Eric Van Leemer (Corey Pearson), who boasts that he turned down $2 million from the Detroit Tigers, hoping to secure a better deal after a summer’s worth of wowza mound performances. At the same time, Ryan is suffering from fear of failure, not to mention fear of turning into his brother Mike (Jason Gedrick), who used to play ball and is now a bartender in the local bar where the players hang out (cozy), condemned to live in Cape Cod forever, with dad down the street, drinking beers and watching tv, when he’s not pulling weeds for rich folks.


You will no doubt recognize a certain Good Will Hunting-ness here, along with familiar elements of any inspirational sports movie. Borrowing from what’s come before is, of course, common practice, but in this case the lifts tend to overwhelm everything else, indicating Summer Catch‘s general lack of imagination. Exhibit A: the film’s emphasis on boy bonding. Ryan’s buddies include the outwardly goofball but inwardly sensitive catcher, Billy Brubaker, a.k.a. Bru (Matthew Lillard) and enthusiastic ken-doll outfielder Miles Dalrymple (Marc Blucas). In a very minor subplot, Miles prefers “fat girls,” and so the rest of the team spends many minutes making “fat girls” jokes (as does the film, when Miles meets one such local girl and she crashes the bedframe when she leaps on him, inciting audience chortles and groans). The most irritating aspect of this business is that the film invites you to laugh at these mean jokes throughout, then pretends to make you think again at the end, when Miles publicly declares his desire for “fat girls.” It’s his confession that solicits cheers, from the guys and from anonymous “fat girls” at the bar, so grateful to have such a champion!


But like I say, this is minor stuff, a way for the movie to get cheap laughs and not take responsibility for them. It’s clearly focused on the conventionally beautiful characters, in particular Ryan’s “summer catch,” gorgeous rich girl Tenley Parrish (Jessica Biel). Though Ryan has been mowing her family’s lawn for six years, Tenley has never noticed him until this instant, and now she can’t seem to avoid him, mainly because she starts frequenting the players’ bar and goes to a game. This sudden relationship allows for lots of montagey sequences: the kids swim, kiss, play catch, laugh, eat ice cream, etc. They don’t have sex, though, because he only does that with the town slut, and you’ve already seen that. Ryan is sincerely falling in Freddie-Prinze-movie love with Tenley.


The obstacle—and there has to be one—is class. Both Ryan and Tenley are advised by their fathers to give it up (her mother has nothing to say but always has a drink in her hand, unsubtly representing Tenley’s future, if she persists in trying to please daddy). Her impossibly snooty dad (Bruce Davison) warns her (and then him) to break it off, and Sean tells Ryan that she’ll only hurt him, etc. And who knows what those crazy kids will do next! When she convinces Ryan to go swimming in her family’s pool late at night, her dad almost catches them. Quelle surprise.


And yet, the predictable plot isn’t even the dullest part of Summer Catch. The dullest part is the execution of this plot. I lost count of the times that the camera solemnly circles a character who’s giving an Important Speech, about dedication or loyalty or being true to yourself or taking big risks to get big rewards, from Ryan’s Coach to Dad to Best Friend to Girlfriend. And don’t forget all those long shots from overhead to indicate Ryan’s sense of alienation or the rain that pours down conveniently whenever a dire emotional moment is in the offing.


And omigod, the baseball scenes: the sweeping shot of the field (at night, by day, whatever); the serial close-ups—Ryan’s grim face, Bru’s fingers, Ryan shaking him off, Bru’s fingers; the scouts in the audience (chief among them, John C. McGinley, who writes on his pad and mutters that “this kid has something,” even when Ryan’s hitting batters with wild pitches); Sean shaking his head in dismay, off to the side of the bleachers; Tenley looking endlessly hopeful and proud; and, to cap it, Curt Gowdy as the announcer, filling in uninteresting plot points and describing Ryan’s emotional state. It’s like you’ve landed in banality heaven, where all the movie cliches have come to rest.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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