Keanu Reeves’ emptiness helps Hardball.

Directed by Brian Robbins
Paramount Pictures

At its core, Brian Robbins’Hardball—which topped last week’s box office charts—is a conventional, thinly written, and nearly intolerable Hollywood heart-warmer/tear-jerker. In place of a logical plot and characters, it relies on a generic shorthand. It’s not clear why anybody in the movie does anything, except that people in similar movies do similar things. Why do the cute black kids warm to the grubby, sleazy, hostile guy who’s been coerced into coaching them? What, didn’t you see Bad News Bears? That’s what kids do in these movies. But despite (or because of) its tattered logic, Hardball contains several potent dramatic moments. And it comes at a time when its strained goodness might be more welcome than at, well, just about any other time.

It stars Keanu Reeves as Conor O’Neill, a 30-ish loser who drinks brown-bagged cans of beer at all hours of the day and shambles around various Chicago dives placing bets. Conor has turned himself into a Hollywood cliché—the compulsive gambler who adds zeroes to his debt with every desperate wager. As it grows, the debt seems more likely to be collected not in money but in flesh. Accordingly, the goons he encounters begin to look less like gorillas and more like vampires.

When Conor barges into the office of his old friend Jimmy Fleming (Mike McGlone)—risen from the streets to a Wacker Drive securities firm—and pleads to borrow 12 grand to cover his most recent losses, Jimmy responds with a modified “get bent.” No way he’s going to “lend” Conor another chunk of money to cover another suicidal bet. Instead, Jimmy writes him a check for five hundred bucks and tells him that’s his weekly fee for helping Jimmy coach a Little League team made up of kids from one of Chicago’s famously scary housing projects. Conor argues that he’s “not good with kids,” but he has no choice. He needs the money.

Jimmy is the first of several people who show up to help Conor as if by divine providence—that is, without any apparent motivation nor any evidence that he can be helped. McGlone presents Jimmy as part tycoon, part leprechaun—an elfex machina. His lips purse in a sly smile, and his Irish eyes twinkle when he ditches Conor at a rutted ghetto ball field with eight dirt-poor grade-schoolers and a tattered duffel bag full of aluminum bats. Somehow, Jimmy just knows that this is what Conor needs to straighten his life out.

That Conor’s first nudge toward redemption comes from twinkling Jimmy mitigates somewhat the sense that this is just another Magical Negro movie: All of Conor’s real allies, black and white, have a sort of glow about them. Nonetheless, the central black people in Hardball are pretty magical. The gangsta affectations of Conor’s young players give way to vulnerability and trust, which brings out the inner non-compulsive-gambler in him. Their noble, austerely handsome mothers stare into his soul with burning, imploring eyes: “Help my boy, please.” Of course, Conor is not ultimately burdened by these entreaties. He is, as he puts it in the movie’s weepy climax, “lifted up to a better place.”

This is the revised setup of certain recent Magical Negro movies, such as Finding Forrester (2000) and Dangerous Minds (1995). Black characters redeem fallen whites not through straightforward instruction, as in the original Magical Negro movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), but through a vulnerability or desperation that evokes in white characters a previously unseen but indispensable … helpfulness. Black characters redeem whites by allowing the whites to save them. It is tempting to deride this contrivance as soggy liberal wish -fulfillment, and, to be honest, it can make for pretty soggy drama. It is also common to attack it as racist condescension, but that charge is too polemical and rests upon too literal an interpretation to offer much insight. The new Magical Negro movie actually expresses a fairly complex anxiety combining old guilt and new fear—the fear that, given the assertive, self-confident, and occasionally separatist flavor of ever more African-American culture and politics, blacks don’t need white liberals anymore. As such, it is a kind of retelling of the civil rights story, where the material and civic condition of an innocent class and the moral condition of a guilty one are both improved. This may be a soft-headed way to convey America’s racial predicament on film, but, as fantasies of American race relations go, it is far from the most vicious one out there.

Yet the black characters in Hardball aren’t just magical. They’re also, in their day-to-day lives, terrified. What makes Hardball occasionally affecting is how its conventionally maudlin plot is offset with moments of sociological, stylistic, and narrative harshness. The projects aren’t just violent; they’re scarred and haunted. When Conor walks one of his players through a filthy hallway to the player’s apartment, he asks why everyone is sitting on the floor. “Bullets,” the kid says. “You have to sit below the windows.” At the building’s entrance, gang members stand in a haphazard, wordless assembly, their parkas shadowing their faces. They’re less a collection of individuals than a general atmosphere, a fog of menace. In this, Robbins successfully calls to mind the eeriest moments of Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers (1979), in which the scariest gang is a silent, dead-faced Irish swarm called the Duckie Boys.

Hardball’s cast also makes it better than it should be. Reeves is often mocked for his blankness, but that quality is an asset here. An actor with real chops—even an intelligent user of them like Kevin Spacey—would have imbued Conor with the pathos that Daniel Coyle’s script wants him to have, but the film is already choked with pathos, simply by virtue of the genres it throws together. So Reeves’ whispery delivery and impassive face allow the center of the film to hold firm while things go wobbly almost everywhere else. (Reeves tends to act with his body rather than his voice or his face; to convey frustration or excitement, he swivels his shoulders and hips back and forth, which makes his arms and legs wave and flop about. It’s a goofy, winning compensation.) And since Conor must stumble into a love interest eventually, it is gratifying when she turns out to be the sternly beautiful Diane Lane, whose ascent from B-movie purgatory over the past five years is one of the happier stories in mainstream cinema. Like everyone else, she trusts Conor completely, for no apparent reason, except that, like everyone else, she has a touch of the Shining: She sees things the audience can’t. But if anyone can make dumb romantic faith seem not only believable but dignified, it’s Lane.

Toward the end of Hardball, the story takes a jolting turn from heartwarming to tear-jerking that people might find cruelly manipulative. Perhaps under normal circumstances, I would too. But these are not normal circumstances, and instead of put off, I was completely undone. This points to the strange and perhaps unintended secret behind the scattered successes in Hardball. On one hand, almost everything in the movie is foreordained by its genre requirements, and in going through the motions Hardball can be both trite and cloying. On the other hand, because of the lack of connecting tissue in much of the story, some scenes come literally out of nowhere. And some of these scenes carry not only the element of surprise but real vision and impact.

The movie also benefits from the increased value, in difficult times, of a good heart. Usually, I would be the first to claim that this is an extraneous point. Now, though, it’s hard not to feel that it’s crucial.