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Ambitious, daring, energetic, and entertaining —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Don’t be surprised if The Rookie gathers a huge grassroots following. It’s the kind of movie that appeals to small-town folks who sometimes reject Hollywood movies for their seemingly foreign sense of normalcy.

Based on a true story, The Rookie is heartfelt and uplifting, and not condescending or sappy. The hero is a believable family man. Religion, although not emphasized, is treated with respect, and a mildly conservative outlook manages to sneak in through the cracks.

The message is optimistic —“follow your dreams” — and it has specific appeal to adults, as well as to children. Most amazing of all, the film is rated G. Not a single swear word was needed to tell this story.

Jimmy Baseball

Dennis Quaid is baseball's oldest rookieDennis Quaid plays Jim Morris. Jimmy’s family moved a lot when he was a kid, but as long as the next town had baseball, he’d be okay. His last stop is Big Lake, Texas, where football is king and baseball is for sissies.

Adult Jim still lives in Big Lake. He never left home to follow his baseball dreams, and now he’s a family man with a wife and three kids. He coaches baseball (and, oh yeah, teaches science) at the local high school.

A Hard Bargain

The Owls have never done well, but this year they’re doing particularly poorly. Jimmy asks his kids why they don’t even seem to try, and they respond with typical teenage ennui.

“If you don’t have dreams, you don’t have anything,” says Quaid, unconvincingly. The kids turn the tables on their coach, asking him why he’s only teaching science in a tiny little town instead of following his big-league dreams.

Jimmy, angry and desperate to spark a little excitement in his team, turns the tables right back around on them. If they make it to the state tournament (an impossible feat for this bunch of slackers), Jimmy promises to try out for the big leagues.

You can see where this is going. The kids will try hard and make it to State. Their enthusiasm will inspire Jimmy, and he will then have to try out for Major League Baseball. The heart of the movie is necessarily a montage of games and newspaper headlines. Predictably, the montage stops so the last play of the last game can be shown in slow motion. In this kind of movie, the question isn’t whether you will be surprised, the question is whether you will be moved. (The answer will be yes.)

Major-League Tryouts

The second half of the movie leaves the high school behind. Jim used to pitch at 80 mph before he injured his shoulder. But as his Owls were getting better and better, he’d occasionally throw them a fastball. He had no idea he was pitching at 95 mph (even the kung fu sound effects didn’t tip him off).

Jimmy is the oldest guy at the major-league tryouts. The scene plays up the age difference for poignant laughs. Here’s Jimmy, changing diapers and managing two other kids, looking out at the field of young hotshots through his crow-footed eyes.

Age or no, Jimmy’s fastball is good enough to earn him a spot on a minor-league team. And so he starts living his dream, playing professional baseball. Ironically, he can’t appreciate it. The hours are terrible, you live on a bus and you never see your family. There is no glory in the minor leagues, and the pay is lousy. Technically, this is his dream, but it’s not at all like he pictured it. And yet, here he is.

I find not just truth, but Truth in this picture of living one’s dreams. Our dreams often include the result of hard work, without the work. We want to write the Great American Novel, but we don’t want to spend time writing. We want to become movie stars but we don’t want to try out at the local dinner theater. And when we actually do write a short story or act in a small film, we don’t often realize that we have started to accomplish our dreams, simply because we don’t feel like Stephen King or Julia Roberts. The Rookie is a good reminder to kids and kids-at-heart that nothing worth having comes easy.

Still, if only Jimmy could pitch in a Major League game, we’d all feel much better about it....

Role Models

Quaid is perfect in this role. His tanned, leathery face fits the hot dusty plains of West Texas. He is athletic and fit, yet old and fragile when compared to the other professional baseballers. The brief scene of him “teaching” science proves just how important baseball is to him.

Rachel Griffiths smooths out an unevenly written role as Jimmy’s wife Lorrie. She is strong-willed and mostly supportive. But a scene of irrational “typical female” behavior adds a bit of unneeded conflict to the plot. Why can’t a movie wife exult in her husband’s dreams instead of nagging and fretting?

There is also some conflict between Jimmy and his gruff Navy dad, Jim Sr. (Brian Cox). Cox is a great character actor who makes the most of the small part he gets to play.

Bet on It

Unlike many G-rated movies, The Rookie feels magical without resorting to any magical shortcuts. It makes no pie-in-the-sky promises like “you can do anything if only you believe.” It shows the consequences of getting what you wish for, and tells you to wish anyway.

If I had to invest money in one film this year, it would be this one. I won’t be surprised if it reaches beyond Hollywood, to all the little Big Lakes in the U.S. of A.