Wednesday, September 24, 2003


THE ROOKIE (2002, USA, John Lee Hancock, Mike Rich screenplay)
Your grandfather once told me it was okay to think about what you want to do until it was time to start doing what you were meant to do. That may not be what you wanted to hear.

When there's an envelope taped to a birthday present, you pretty much know what's going to be inside that envelope, but that doesn't mean you don't open it. This movie's a lot like that: it's an inspirational greeting card of a movie – in its look, in the shape and style of its storytelling, and in its "follow your dream" sentiments. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't bother watching it.

When a film sets out to tell the story of a high school science teacher and baseball coach whose uninspired players make him a promise to try out for The Bigs if (against all odds) they win the championship, chances are this story's going to run the base paths in pretty familiar fashion. And when Coach is a guy who hangs a medallion of Rita, patron saint of impossible dreams, from the mirror in his pickup truck, it's pretty much preordained that things are going to work out.

The real surprises come in how this movie gets where it's inevitably going, in the attention it pays to the difficulties human relationships go through in the pursuit of dreams – whether they also happen to be divine callings or not. One of the people at the centre of Jim Morris's life is his father, a preoccupied man made over into the image of the military that owns him and directs his steps: the accomplishment of the movie-makers is not to leave Dad and son stuck there, but to track that troubled relationship on into adulthood, without falsifying it. When the elder Morris advises his son to do what he is meant to do, I couldn't help remembering a similar conversation with my own mother as I faced a decision whether to go into the ministry or to pursue the life of a theatre artist. I wonder if it's just a personal reading, or whether this father's advice doesn't ultimately convey something about the inevitability of living out one's vocation – particularly one that's being steered by the unstoppable Saint Rita and the prayers of a pair of Texas nuns. (On her deathbed, Rita was asked by a visitor if she'd like anything brought from her home town. She asked for a rose. The visitor returned to the family estate, frozen in the middle of winter, and found a single blossom on an otherwise bare rose bush.)

The other central character in this man's life is his wife Lorri, and Rachel Griffiths' portrayal truly provides the centre of gravity for this film. What an actress! She charges the standard-issue strong-but-supportive wife role with tremendous electricity and presence, and every one of her big scenes is filled with unspoken nuance before or between or after the lines – check out her exit from the porch after the talk about their son, her reaction to the sport coat call, or the scene where she finds her husband in the bullpen. I hear she's a regular on SIX FEET UNDER. Almost makes me consider watching television.

For all its too-handsome instant-nostalgia look, the film gives us lots of specific detail as well. The family's arrival in Big Lake, Texas is marked by BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY on the theatre marquee. Elvis sings the gospel-tinged "Midnight Rider" as Morris throws BP. The high school ball games may be predictable in serving exactly the plot functions we know they'll have to serve, but they also feel like ball, and not Big League TV ball either. Jim's son wears his rally cap at a key moment in the game, and we realize that he's getting the kind of fathering his dad never got. It's a treat to see this ordinary father arrive at try-outs beleaguered by the minutae of baby maintenance, and I appreciated the light touch about the "miraculous" increase in this washed-up pitcher's fastball. I love the concision of that next-to-final shot, summing up this man's life and calling in the high school trophy cases, and then the final image of nuns scattering flower petals – they're roses because of Saint Rita, and they're yellow because, well, this is Texas!

I'd recommend this movie for families to watch together – it's a well-made, positive story with faith elements that can provide an entertaining evening together or some great conversation about real questions of vocation or the miraculous. Still, I can't help thinking the writers let us down with this treatment of the true story of Jim Morris's improbable shot at the major leagues – could it be that shrinking the role of faith to a good luck amulet and one pre-game prayer session denies us any sense that Christianity offers anything more than a mix of destiny-shaping magic and civic religion. Does God serve no more role in this believer's life than to provide baseball miracles at the request of some long-ago nuns? Is that what authentic personal faith looks like, or is it just a Hollywood kind of shamanistic superstition?

But most of the time I'm just glad that Hollywood can make a baseball movie – and this is very much a Hollywood movie – that's also about the hard work of marriage and parenting and being parented. More surprisingly, it doesn't feel obliged to negate the power of God that worked in this man's life. In THE ROOKIE, God may be on the bench, but at least He's allowed in the ballpark.