ROOKIE OF THE YEAR gives you the cheese, the high stinking L
H. Bala | Carson - hey, we have an IKEA store! - CA USA | 07/13/2009
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Today the AMC channel featured a back-to-back showing of ROOKIE OF THE YEAR and The Rookie (Widescreen Edition), and, for me, that was pretty much Sunday spent. These two films, redolent of that feel-good underdog vibe and of wish fulfillment, are essentially baseball fables, and young Thomas Ian Nicholas and Dennis Quaid, in their own respective ways, right away gets you rooting for them. THE ROOKIE, a true story, tells of a past-his-prime pitcher who gets a second shot at the big time. ROOKIE OF THE YEAR, not at all a true story, is about a 12-year-old boy who ends up pitching in the Major Leagues. And, ah man, it's a fun family flick.
Thomas Ian Nicholas plays Henry Rowengartner, a hopelessly klutzy 12-year-old Chicagoan and possibly the next-to-last worst player in Little League (after some poor kid with asthma). But an arm injury results in a freakish heal, as tendons in Henry's arm become fused to his humerus, the side result of which is that Henry now has serious torque in his arm and can suddenly pitch at devastating velocities. One day, at a Cubs game, when a homerun-smashed baseball sails into the stands, Henry, with his new super-arm, throws it back, a frozen rope hurtling from the bleachers and straight into the catcher's mitt. It's not too long before the Chicago Cubs, a team which hasn't been to the mountaintop since 1908 and hampered with poor attendance, reaches out to recruit young Henry as a publicity stunt. Which is how 12-year-old Henry Rowengartner (or, as the Cubbies manager calls him, Gardenhoser) becomes a star pitching reliever for the Cubbies, and an overnight sensation.
What I like is that there is a sort of unpredictability in this one gimmick movie. Henry eventually does begin to regularly mow down opposing batters, but not before a stint of struggle. Kid's not invincible. In his debut outing as the closer, he allows a home run, hits a batter, and throw a wild pitch... although he still gets the save. But it's obvious that Henry is lost at sea in the big leagues. Which is where Gary Busey comes in. It's a staple of this type of sports flick that a grizzled pro shows up to mentor the newbie. Busey tones down the crazy and, much like Tony Danza in Angels in the Outfield, lends a world-weary dignity to his role of surly, struggling pitcher Chet Steadman a.k.a. the Rocket. Steadman is trying to hang on in the twilight years of his baseball career, and is it any wonder that he resents this wunderkind with the thunderbolt arm? But thanks to Steadman's cryptic pep talk, Henry saves his second game in a row. Or to quote John Candy's game announcer, doing his best Bob Eucker impersonation: "That extends the Cubs to their longest winning streak of the season, two." I guess Harry Carey was busy at the time.
Under Daniel Stern's direction, the tone of the movie ranges from grounded to sentimental to screwball bizarre, this last trait brought about by Stern's oddball pitching coach character. I don't know why I laughed so hard at Daniel Stern getting stuck and squeezed in between two doors, but I did, so there it is. In spite of Stern's sometimes jarring eccentric turn, enough of what's appealing floats to the top to make this an enjoyable watch. ROOKIE OF THE YEAR smartly focuses on the story's whimsical elements and makes room for Thomas Ian Nicholas to do his thing. At the heart of the film is Nicholas's irrepressibly goofy grin and cheerful, easy going nature, and, young dude that he is, he embodies that which every other kid and kid at heart daydream about, the longshot making it in the big time.
Nicholas gets good support from the other actors. Gary Busey's grounded performance balances Stern's weirdness. Amy Morton is kinda terrific as Henry's cool and supportive single parent mom. Oldtimer Eddie Bracken as the Cubs owner instantly dredges up warm recollections of those classic films by Preston Sturges, although, not to get it twisted, ROOKIE OF THE YEAR is a long ways from Sturges's cinematic brand of awesome. ROOKIE OF THE YEAR isn't a classic, but it's certainly diverting.
Not that this movie doesn't have its share of trite. There's Henry's mom's clichéd jerky boyfriend whose first appearance immediately screams "This is the bad guy!" It's pretty predictable that Henry's boyhood pals feel left out, what with Henry engrossed in professional baseball and limo-riding and shooting ads for Pepsi. There's a groan-inducing moment when a batter gets what he thinks is an easy pitch and so licks his lips so broadly it's like he's a cartoon character. Of course, there's the big game at the end, of which outcome rests on Henry's suddenly mojo-less arm. It's a nice twist, Henry unable to rely on throwing strikes and instead forced to come up with rather unconventional ways to earn his three outs. Ergo, the Hidden Ball ploy and the "I dare you to run" gambit. Brother, it's so childish, but I couldn't help smiling, glad that the film keeps in mind that the central character is this kid, joyous and ever stupefied whenever he steps on hallowed Wrigley Field. Henry's foray around the bases had me in stitches. I guess you can get away with taunting the first baseman and then dissing the opposing pitcher with "We want a pitcher, not an underwear snitcher." - if you're a kid.
I hope it's not the kiss of death when I say that ROOKIE OF THE YEAR is a really cute film, but what other adjective is there when the kid gets fined $500 for being late in practice and his reaction is "Five hundred dollars! That's like six years' allowance!" ROOKIE OF THE YEAR doesn't quite approach the quality of its cinematic predecessors (It Happens Every Spring, Angels in the Outfield, The Natural (Director's Cut), etc.), and it's sometimes very broad and silly. But it keeps you tuned in on the strength of its warmth and exuberance and its outrageous premise. And where else can you see a 12-year-old strike out Barry Bonds?"