Plot: Conor (Keanu Reeves) is a sports fan to the point of compulsion, but he roots for the spread, not for the teams to succeed. He has a serious gambling addiction, to the point he is always in debt to bookies and his life suffers as a result. On the times his bets do pay off, he is lucky to be able to make a dent in what he owes, so he is rarely ahead or even breaking even, but he simply can’t stop. But when he comes up short one time too often, he faces dangerous consequences if he can’t pay, so when he is offered the chance to coach youth baseball to earn some cash, he accepts. He plans to skate through until he can afford to quit, a prospect he feels validated in, when his troubled players seem disinterested themselves. Will he just stick around until he has the cash he needs, or will Conor discover a sense of purpose as he gets to know his players and starts to take some pride in the team?
Entertainment Value: A troubled coach meets a band of ragtag, unlikely players in Hardball, a well worn concept that seems to revisited often, but falls rather flat in this case. This movie banks on Keanu Reeves and does little else, with no real humor and little drama, as the narrative glosses over all of the elements involved, leaving us with little to connect with. There’s potential here, with Conor’s gambling issues, his own lack of purpose in life, the kids’ social issues, and the dynamic of Conor at the lead of this inner city team, but none of that is given much chance to develop. These threads are introduced and allowed a little room to breathe at first, but Hardball never wants to go beneath the surface and explore the issues involved. This greatly limits the drama and emotional beats, but the movie doesn’t even effective humor to lean on, so there’s just not much here. Unless you’re a completist for Keanu movies, Hardball has little to offer and is hard to recommend.
As I said, the main draw here is Keanu Reeves and the movie seems to hope his mere presence is enough to send the audience home satisfied. I suppose if you’re a big fan of his work, you can find some things to like here, but Reeves isn’t given much to do and his performance is far from memorable. That’s not to say he’s bad by any means, he just doesn’t do much and the script is rather bland, so he just goes through the motions and little more. His scenes with the kids aren’t humorous or poignant, so his best scenes happen when he clashes with bookies or flirts with Diane Lane. Lane has a small role with no depth or development, so while she performs well, she never has a chance to shine here. The same can be said for John Hawkes, who is rock solid, but is again let down by the mediocre script involved. The cast also includes D.B. Sweeney, as well as an early appearance by Michael B. Jordan. So overall a good cast was assembled, but the movie fails to put them to good use.