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'The Rookie' not fit for short attention spans

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

If there's a near fatal flaw to Disney's ''The Rookie,'' which opens Friday, it's that the film takes a timing cue from its real-life subject, an average guy finally realizing his major-league dream when he's well on in years.

Both the life of Jim Morris and the film inspired by his journey have big payoffs. But they're a long time coming, and that's a problem for a movie catering to family audiences, for whom two-hours-plus may be too much when a brisk choice such as ''Ice Age'' is playing in the next theater.

Director John Lee Hancock overplays the buildup to Morris' second chance, devoting two-thirds of the movie to a passably engaging story of high school underachievers.

The film brings on the heat late in the game, though, with a gooey but rousing climax that will make many people forget -- or at least forgive -- the 90 minutes of bench-warming it's taken to reach it.

Though a decade older than Morris was when he entered the major leagues, Dennis Quaid ably takes to the mound as the pitcher whose fastball somehow improves with age.

After an introduction establishing Morris' childhood love for the game, his catapult of an arm and his shaky relationship with his emotionally distant father (Brian Cox), ''The Rookie'' skips ahead to 1999.

In his mid-30s, Morris works as a science teacher in the dusty Texas town where he spent much of his youth and coaches a hapless baseball team of unmotivated teens.

''The Rookie'' languidly introduces the good-hearted, small-town folk around Morris and his cheery home life with wife Lorri (Rachel Griffiths) and their three children. Viewers gradually learn Morris had his ball-playing shot in his 20s but was forced out of the minors by shoulder problems.

To inspire his losing team, Morris makes a pact: If his players win the divisional championship, he'll try out again for a pro team. To his surprise, they do, and to his amazement, he clocks a dozen fastballs in the 98-mph range when he holds up his end at an open baseball tryout.

Signed to the farm system for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Morris finds his groove as a relief pitcher, and three months later makes his big-league debut -- on the road in his home state of Texas, family and friends thronging the stands.

The energy and humor of the final third of ''The Rookie'' makes you wish Hancock and screenwriter Mike Rich had compacted the goats-to-champions coaching part and expanded on the real Cinderella story of Morris' professional triumph. Morris ultimately lasted two partial seasons in the majors, and the film's rendering of his minor-league struggle is so enjoyable you want to see more of that and less of the life preceding it.

If this were a fictional tale, ''The Rookie'' would be beyond belief. But based on a recent, well-publicized sports story, the film does have truly inspiring moments.

and a sense of utter decency reminiscent of ''Hoosiers.''

Quaid has a quiet grace as Morris, and after a ho-hum decade, it would be nice if the actor could imitate his character and score a sleeper hit. In a limited role, Griffiths manages nice moments as the not entirely supportive spouse.

The breakout star of ''The Rookie'' is cinematographer John Schwartzman, best known for such Bay-Bruckheimer bombardiering movies as ''Pearl Harbor,'' ''Armageddon'' and ''The Rock.''

Here, Schwartzman crafts understated, exquisite panoramas of rural Texas that lend a degree of timelessness to a contemporary story.

Schwartzman's images are especially effective in a quirky, cryptic prologue and closing shot that focus on a legend of two nuns who invested in a seemingly barren patch of dustbowl land hoping for an oil strike. Like Morris, they rely on St. Rita, patroness of impossible causes.

''The Rookie,'' a Disney release, is rated G. Running time: 128 minutes. Two and a half stars (out of four).



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