Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths, Jay Hernandez, Brian Cox, Trevor Morgan
Running Time: 2:07
Release Date: 3/29/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
There’s something about baseball—something distinctly American and childlike—that helps it to serve as a metaphor for many aspects of life itself. Perhaps it’s simply what we’ve come to perceive about baseball from the movies, but either way, it almost always provides the basis to elaborate on uplifting themes like fulfilling dreams, overcoming obstacles, winning the big game, etc. On the flip side, it also allows an opportunity for our frailty to show: playing for money, losing childhood innocence, striking out, etc. The best baseball stories manage to weave both of these together, as Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural does, but movies are prone to favor stories concentrating on the former themes, which accounts for Barry Levison’s bastardization of Malamud’s novel. The Rookie is all about those earlier themes. It would be tempting to call it formulaic if not for the fact that it’s based on a true story. So tempting, in fact, that the movie could be considered an example of art imitating life imitating art.
The town of Big Lake, Texas was founded on the site of an oil prospect discovered in the 1920s. As the oil industry there winded down, baseball emerged as the town’s pride and joy. Cut the ’70s and a young boy named Jimmy Morris (Trevor Morgan) whose childhood is comprised of baseball and moving across the country as his father (Brain Cox), an Army man, is transferred. By the time they finally settle down in Big Lake, the town’s new sport is football, and baseball essentially does not exist. Flash ahead to 1999, the now thirty-five year old Jim (Dennis Quaid) teaches high school chemistry and coaches the financially neglected school baseball team. He’s married to Lorri (Rachel Griffiths) and has three kids. He has also suffered a shoulder injury, preventing him from achieving his Major League dream. While pitching for batting practice, though, he displays an incredible fastball, and his players make him a bet: If they win the district title, he will try out for the professionals.
As it’s based on a true, feel-good story (there wouldn’t be a movie based on the life of a man who simply cannot fulfill his dream because time has robbed him of his talents), of course the team wins, Jim tries out, demonstrates a ninety-eight mile-per-hour pitch, and becomes a major contender. The movie’s greatest virtue is that it takes time with its story. There’s usually a tendency to rush movies like this, as we already know what will happen. We can see it in the way John Schwartman’s traditional but wholly effective cinematography lingers on scenes and helps create an old-fashioned mood. During the first act involving the high school baseball team, this style of storytelling ends up hindering the movie. Since the focus of the movie is Jim’s progress, the school team is simply the impetus to get him started on his way. The team’s progression is of little importance to the story as a whole; it’s simply that they accomplish their goal that matters. The movie spends too much time developing their achievements without placing them in a thematic context, which would not only develop the characters more but also give the movie a stronger footing.
In later story developments, this more relaxed approach helps the movie. As Jim becomes the sole focal point, it becomes far more specific and much more effective. If the first act is about a generic slice of Americana, what follows is one man’s slice of that Americana—his dream. This section of the movie works the best. Jim has already established a life for himself, and in order to fulfill his dream, he must leave everything he’s known. He’s wanted this since childhood, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy. Jim questions whether or not abandoning his family is worth the very small chance that he would make it to the majors. As Jim, Dennis Quaid is effective, especially in these scenes. As much as it may seem the opposite, the movie is not a character-driven one. It never really gets into the characters, with Jim of course the minor exception. The rest of the actors, particularly Rachel Griffiths and Brian Cox, fit the broad types they play just fine.
True story or not, we’ve seen The Rookie many times before. The movie is well crafted and, once we move past the first act, quite entertaining. The "follow your dreams" moral is about as inspirational as it can be after it’s been recycled in lesser movies so many times, which isn’t to say that it’s not affecting—just not as much as it could have been. Maybe it’s asking too much, but if a movie is truly going to inspire me, I want a little more than this.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.