A film that fits the troika of being G-rated, Walt Disney-produced, and "Based on a True Story" usually revolves around subjects like cute and cuddly household pets on a quest to return home to their owners. The Rookie matches all three characteristics, but manages to rise far above its pedigree. Even given that it’s obviously intended to be "inspiring" and that stock elements periodically pop up right where expected, it’s a thoughtful film made with intelligence and style.
As True Stories go, they don’t come much more unlikely. In the spring of 1999, Jim Morris was a 35-year-old high school chemistry teacher in Big Lake Texas (population 3600) who also coached the school baseball team. The Big Lake Owls were a ragtag group that had won just a single game in each of their previous three seasons. Morris’ own baseball career had flamed out years earlier due to a series of injuries and surgeries, but recently he’d begun throwing batting practice for his players, who found his unexpectedly blazing fastball tough to hit. After a particularly dispirited loss, Morris challenged his players: aim higher, always have a dream to strive for. They shot back with a challenge of their own: practice what you preach, Coach – where’s your dream? A bargain was struck; Morris agreed that if the Owls could win the District Championship, he’d try out for a major league ball club.
The outcome of this scenario may be easy to deduce, but it’s to director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Mike Rich’s credit that they tell their story with a bare minimum of cliches and not very much baseball, especially "big game" type scenes. As with the best "sports" films, this isn’t a story of one game or a season, or for that matter even very much about sports at all. Like Morris’ book from which it’s adapted, the film takes its time arriving at the saga of Morris and his Owls, instead starting with his childhood and how he came to be stranded in a dusty west Texas hamlet. As such it provides Morris with much more background and motivation than just trying to win the next "big one."
Cinematographer John Schwartzman, best known for his work on bloated Jerry Bruckheimer "epics" like Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, here dials back the bombast and shows life in Big Lake simply yet effectively. Hancock allows events to happen at a leisurely pace, the tempo of the film fitting the cadence of the countryside and its people. The soundtrack is a great combination of sparse and somber Carter Burwell melodies, country, pop and rockabilly tunes. It does a fine job of conveying life on the arid West Texas plains.
Dennis Quaid plays Morris as a pragmatic skeptic, someone who’d like to believe that anything is possible but who’s had enough experience of his own to know better. As the Owls’ season and Morris’ major league ambitions advance, he slowly becomes a believer, but not necessarily an optimist; he’s just as amazed as anyone else at what develops. As Morris’ wife, required for the obligatory warm fuzzy family scenes and "follow your dream" confrontation, Rachel Griffiths goes far beyond the required outline in a fine performance. It’s clear she loves her husband enough to want him to succeed, but also loves him so much that she can’t stand to see him be hurt yet another time, physically or emotionally. And unlike many films using sports scenes (like Fear Strikes Out or Bang The Drum Slowly) all the actors involved can actually play the game.
On paper, The Rookie has about as much depth as The Bad News Bears. But as the Chicago Cubs’ efforts since their last World Series in 1908 have shown, there’s more to having a winning baseball team than just assembling the best lineup. The Rookie takes a simple premise and carries it to unexpected heights, enjoyably surprising in its richness and charm.
– Bob Aulert