Step right up, ladies and gents, and watch Keanu Reeves coach Little League in a Chicago ghetto. Thrill to the sound of ten-year-old teammates talking dirty. Laugh when the star pitcher wears headphones to the mound so he can hear the Notorious B.I.G. sing about wanting to impregnate all the ladies he sees (“I love it when you call me Big Papa”). Weep when a tiny tyke gets killed in a drive-by shooting and Keanu delivers a rousing eulogy about the triumph of the human spirit.
Had enough? Hardball, crudely directed by Brian Robbins (Varsity Blues) from a by-the-numbers script by John Gatins (Summer Catch), is a smarmy proposition passing itself off as family fun in the style of The Bad News Bears. Based on Daniel Coyle’s book about a magazine editor coaching a youth team in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects, the film takes a true story and drags it through a swamp of hyped-up Hollywood cliches.
Reeves plays Conor O’Neill — not an editor, but a gambler in debt for $12,000. To avoid getting beaten up or worse, Conor earns money by coaching the Kekambas (the league names its teams after African tribes), black kids with few skills and less motivation. Conor’s pals mock him for “coaching crack babies.” Ms. Wilkes (Diane Lane), who teaches the kids at St. Malachy’s, thinks Conor is a loser. So does Matt Hyland (D.B. Sweeney), the yuppie coach of the Bua Was team. But we know better. Conor is one more white hero destined to redeem himself by teaching esprit de corps to misguided black youth. Even Ms. Wilkes has to love him. Saner audiences will do the right thing and puke.