Just as hitting is mostly about timing, that's also a big factor in creating a hit movie. The new family film, "The Rookie" certainly found the sweet spot on its opening weekend.
Not only did this crowd pleasing movie open the weekend before Major League Baseball's opening day, it was also Easter weekend, giving parents the whole following week to take their kids out to the ballgame-- so to speak.
Of course, none of this would matter if the film's delivery were weak, but there is real power behind this stroke, and better yet, it's a G-rated movie that doesn't dumb itself down to the young audience. Director John Lee Hancock has perfect pitch, treating kids as people with both attention spans and the smarts to appreciate a good story He successfully stays in fair territory, never crossing the foul line between sentimental and maudlin, between sweet and saccharine.
Dennis Quaid stars as Jim Morris, a 38 year old small town Texas high school baseball coach who gave up his youthful major league dreams after shoulder surgery. But the catcher has seen his coach out throwing a baseball in solitude, and thinks the old man still has some stuff.
Morris gives his team a motivational speech after a bad loss, and they throw his words back at him. A deal is struck: If the team wins their district championship, Morris will try out for the major leagues.
"The Rookie" is two movies: the first, a far superior "Mighty Ducks" type of story about the underdog high school team; the other, about Morris' pursuit of his major league dreams.
Quaid is at his most appealing as Morris, and he is capably helped by the terrific Australian actress Rachael Griffiths as his archetypical Texas wife, who is at first reluctant for him to risk another injury by pitching, then becomes a tower of strength in holding down the homefront while Morris is on his minor league baseball tour.
Also charming, is the supporting cast of youngsters, both on Morris' high school team, and those playing his children. Angus T. Jones, as Morris' 8 year old son Hunter is particularly strong.
There is also a redeeming, "October Sky" like subplot involving Morris' strained relationship with his stern, military officer father, (Brian Cox) who thinks baseball is a waste of time. "The Rookie" isn't quite as good a film as "October Sky" or "Hoosiers"-- the movies it most closely resembles-- but it is in that league. Like those films, "The Rookie" gives a real sense of time and place. Director Hancock does a great job with his locations, the depressed dusty Texas oil town, the tacky minor league ballparks, and, especially, the moment when Morris first walks onto the field at Arlington Stadium. That's a thrilling, but not melodramatic, moment.
My sole complaint is that Morris's Christianity is downplayed. The film invokes the town legend of the two nuns who blessed the land where oil was discovered at its founding, and Morris wears his St. Rita medal (the patron saint of impossible dreams), but it seems more like civic pride in the town symbol than anything else. He prays with his school team before the game-- which in Texas is more of a civic exercise like the playing of the national anthem-- but not before making his life changing decision. One of his minor league teammates refers to him as "Rev," but we don't really see why. In nearly every press account, however, the real life Morris talks openly about God's leading in his life.
This is one of those stories that if it weren't true, I would not have believed one minute.
"Things just don't happen this way" would be the argument-- but sometimes, they really do.
"The Rookie" is a celebration of core American civil and religious values that would make de Toqueville stop and say, "See, THAT is what I was writing about." It is also honest about the sacrifices it takes to realize one's dream. We feel the loneliness of the road while Morris is on his endless bus trip with the minor league ballteam. Unlike films and books which treat baseball as a quasi-religious experience (which I suspect are written by people who didn't play it much) "The Rookie" keeps baseball in a proper perspective.
The whole family will certainly enjoy "The Rookie," but it's a special treat for fathers and sons getting ready for the upcoming baseball season. After watching it, I went and threw an hour of batting practice to my son's team, and didn't feel a thing... until the next day, that is.