In his definitive piece on baseball movies ("No, But I Saw The Game"), Roger Angell rightly hails Bull Durham for debunking the bloated mythology and phony uplift that the game tends to inspire, and for acknowledging those "dusty middle innings" when miracles don't come so cheap. On the continuum with Bull Durham on one end and Field Of Dreams on the other, John Lee Hancock's The Rookie occupies that rare spot in the middle, tempering a weakness for Quaker Oats Americana with a surprisingly modest and sobering sense of proportion. Hancock—not to be confused with John D. Hancock, who managed a similar earthiness with 1973's Bang The Drum Slowly—wages a compelling battle between dreams and responsibilities, with a special appreciation for the little footnotes that make the game special. But he gets himself into trouble early, ladling on some storybook nonsense about a barren oil field in West Texas that was blessed by nuns with yellow rose petals and soon became fertile ground for black gold and ballplayers. When a prepubescent Army brat (Trevor Morgan) with a cannon-like left arm moves to town, local baseball has become a thing of the past, remembered only by the old-timers that haunt the department store. In a brilliant touch, Hancock shows the lone kid hurling balls against a backstop, then cuts to the same shot years later, when the kid has become an adult in his late 30s, having stayed in the same place as his dreams passed him by. Now a high-school chemistry teacher with a wife (Rachel Griffiths) and three young kids, Dennis Quaid coaches a hapless baseball team on a dirt diamond, leading a happy life that's tinged with some regret and residual bitterness toward a father (Brian Cox) who never encouraged him. Upon discovering that he still has a live fastball, in spite of his age and multiple surgeries, the team members strike a bargain: If they win district, he has to throw at an open tryout for the major leagues. Though Hancock traffics in a lot of bogus small-town sentiment, The Rookie exhibits a refreshingly honest understanding of baseball as a job, with long road trips away from home and a workmanlike routine that rarely finds room for grand slams and perfect games. This kind of maturity and restraint is unheard of in other Disney live-action films, which usually tout the limitless potential of ragtag misfits under the tutelage of B-list celebrities. Touching and wise, with fine performances and impeccable widescreen photography, The Rookie is a rare family film that encourages kids to pursue their dreams, but not before giving full weight to the consequences.
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