Have you noticed that when Keanu Reeves is confronted with a) a death threat; b) a possible love interest; c) boredom; or d) anger, his hands tend to whip out from his sides to an extended semaphore position, then wave up and down as if he had leaped onto the railroad tracks and was trying to stop the train? There are many examples of this in his new film "Hardball," along with his attempt at pitching his voice down to a level more commensurate with that of an adult, as opposed to an adolescent. Neither technique helps much in this film, however.
The story, which is not bad if you don't count "The Bad News Bears," "The Mighty Ducks," or the dozen other films about flawed men being redeemed by coaching children to a championship, is about a flawed man being redeemed by coaching children - oh, excuse me. In this case, the sport is baseball, the children live in Chicago's projects, they are all black, they are all natural actors and they even know how to play ball like kids. Not only that, they are great fun to watch, having a good time insulting each other, cheering each other on, and trying to relate to Reeves's character Conor O'Neill, who, like Reeves, seems to be in a world of his own.
O'Neill is a compulsive gambler, in debt to the bookies for $12,000 with no way to get the money and a good chance of getting his legs broken by their enforcers. His friend, an investment banker, gives him $500 a week to coach the team the company sponsors, and he reluctantly accepts. He meets their teacher (Diane Lane), who likes him but does not fall for his gambler's lies, and ultimately he becomes the man everyone wants him to be.
The film does not gloss over life in the projects. It is absolute hell,something that is shown graphically in the course of the film, in the most brutal possible way. Even the ball field itself is scruffy dirt and weeds - not prettied up for the film.
The problem is Reeves. He is a limited actor, and though he gives us a believable portrait of the gambler, running and ducking and lying and bluffing his way through every near disaster, he is a cipher when it comes to anything resembling a human relationship. As a coach he stands immobile, like a tree around which the kids must find some purchase. We are told, rather than shown, their progress toward growth and success.
Diane Lane must be in this film for the paycheck, for she barely has a character to work with. When we remember her moving performance in the brilliant "A Walk on the Moon," we recall what an extraordinary actress she is. Let us hope she gets better roles than the ones she has here and in "The Glass House."