Dead Heat

Bad Career Move Derby

Busey rallied recently with a bit part in The Firm, injecting the movie with a much-needed jolt of energy. But he has followed that up with Rookie of the Year, in which he sleepwalks through the part of Chet Steadman, a washed-up Chicago Cubs pitcher.

Steadman is the favorite player of Henry Rowengartner, a twelve-year-old nerd whose broken arm heals funny, giving him the gift of a 100-mph fastball. Henry is recruited by the Cubs to save the franchise and lead the team into the playoffs. (Talk about fantasy!) Steadman, who is trying to come back from major shoulder surgery but not having much luck, has to learn to overcome his jealousy of the kid's gift as well as frustration over his own slow-to-mend arm. The grizzled veteran is, of course, gruff and hostile toward Henry initially. Eventually, however, he takes the kid under his wing and engages in some old-fashioned bonding.

It's ham-fisted, sentimental gruel that would not have been out of place on the old Disney Sunday night TV series.

Rookie of the Year is partially redeemed by the odd moment of grace when you least expect it. Henry's mother, played by Amy Morton, and his school chums, played by Robert Gorman and Patrick LaBrecque, rise above the generally amateurish level set by the rest of the cast on occasion. But their efforts are superfluous. This is a movie targeted at the too-young-for-Jurassic Park audience, whose criteria for an enjoyable filmgoing experience are not likely to include quality performances, subtle character development, or witty repartee. And it may just be the wholesomest and least offensive film of the year (at least in terms of sex, violence, and profanity, although it logs high on the stupidity and patronization charts); Snow White is dangerously subversive by comparison.

Judging by the response of the largely preteen crowd at a recent screening, the predictable story, shameless mugging, corny jokes, dumb set pieces, and unbelievable premise (the twelve-year-old with the speedball is one thing, the Cubs winning the division is just too much) count for little. Thomas Ian Nicholas as Henry Rowengartner is appealing if a bit quick to resort to the wide-eyed, mouth-open-in-awe look. He's personable and funny without being too cute, an acceptable Culkin substitute. Director-costar Daniel Stern, narrator of TV's The Wonder Years, knows a thing or two about Little Big Mac. He worked with the pintsize multimillionaire on both Home Alone movies. Presumably that is also where he honed his skills at buffoonish comic relief, although he is so out of control in this film that one cannot responsibly call it acting. Behind the camera for his feature film directorial debut, Stern is as delicate as a Mike Tyson pickup line. In front of the lens he's even less adroit.

If Rookie of the Year succeeds at the box office, it goes to show just how starved parents are for harmless entertainment for their kids, no matter how vapid or hackneyed. In terms of both violence and artistic merit, this is a film that makes Home Alone look like something from the Scorcese catalogue.

But whether the kiddie pic turns a profit or not, Gary Busey comes out a loser. As the aging ballplayer with the bum arm, he proves himself adept at doing what today's professional athletes are most skillful at: cashing a fat paycheck for playing a child's game.

Take a long look at Donald Sutherland's career, Gary. It ought to scare you.

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