Based on the true story, "The Rookie" (IMDb listing) tells the tale of Jim Morris. A high school teacher who also coaches the school's baseball team in Big Lake, Texas, Jim long ago abandoned his dream of playing in the big leagues after a shoulder injury diminished his chances and family became the priority in his life. Now in his forties, Jim watches helplessly as his high school team faces a losing streak with no end in sight. His offer? If the team comes together and wins the district championship, he will try out for a major league team again. The team, sensing an opportunity to witness the dormant greatness in Jim, gets its act together and soon takes the top spot in their league. Thrilled with their accomplishment, Jim is now forced to confront his promise. A promise that might realize his lifelong dream to play pro baseball, much to the disapproval of all the adults around him.
What makes a good baseball movie is simple reverence for the game. The director needs to soak in all the details. He needs to allow space for the sport to breathe. "The Rookie" is this type of picture, taking ample time to inhale the fresh outfield grass, to peel the clay out of the cleats and to feel the rigid red stitches on a baseball. "The Rookie" is a baseball film on the same plane as "Bull Durham" or "For Love Of The Game" in terms of sitting back and feeling every inch of the sport. "The Rookie" lacks the screenwriting prowess of the other two pictures, but its simplicity is agreeable, and its allegiance to baseball purity engaging. You just don't see that enough.
The screenplay, credited to Mike Rich ("Finding Forrester"), is less respectful to all the other aspects besides the game. "The Rookie" is basically a true story with layer upon layer of sport movie clichés heaped upon it. The film leaves no motivational speech unturned, and for a 120-minute film, it does get old very quickly. However, "The Rookie" is an admirable, inspiring story. It's told with love and has a goal of maintaining a family friendly feel to it (the film is charmingly G rated), without resorting to crude family-film mainstays. I really appreciate that. I also admire how the film does nothing with the subplot featuring Jim's damaged arm. The injury, which happened to Jim as a young man and ended up cutting short his career as a ballplayer, was a great source of concern to his wife, Lorrie (nicely played by Rachel Griffiths). The film could've easily taken the route in which Jim's arm is reinjured in the second act of the film, only to have him reemerge in the last act beaten, but now willing to fight for his dreams. Many successful films have taken that route, so I couldn't blame "The Rookie" for following suit. But once the injury is discussed, it is quickly let go, never to be mentioned again. In a film that is shrouded in formula, I am shocked that the filmmakers never choose to mine this plot thread for maximum drama. After all the ways "The Rookie" reminds you of other films, it makes a decision with this restraint that is vital to its overall success. It's smart screenwriting where it counts the most.
The other thing that keeps this screenplay from crumbling like a house of cards is Dennis Quaid's commanding performance as Jim Morris. Even though the film is a Disney production, Quaid still manages to find the essence of his role as a frustrated man who, after years of defeat, finally finds the path to his dreams. I just adored how Quaid plays up Jim's disbelief in how this opportunity has taken him so far. I also loved the subtle scenes between Jim and Lorrie. The couple love each other dearly, but Lorrie has very honest reservations about Jim's baseball chances. Quaid's reaction to his wife's honesty mixes with equal parts offense, disbelief and respect. A very nice choice. Whenever the script takes the off ramp into well-known territory, Quaid's acting steers it away from becoming truly unbearable.
"The Rookie" is an enjoyable enough film, even though it might try your patience now and again. If you're a fan of baseball though, it's a film not to miss, as any picture that loves the game as much as this film is truly a sports movie to see.
Filmfodder Grade: B