Balled up: Hard to tell good from bad

"I lied and cheated," a contrite dad tells his pitching prodigy son late in Mickey, "and I taught you how to lie and cheat." His Little League son's answer is supposed to console us– the music, trembling chins, and low camera angles leave no doubt– but I can't have been the only one in the theater who felt a chill at the kid's reply: "You taught me to be a ball player."

His accidental insight reveals the dilemma that faced Mickey's makers, local moguls John Grisham (who wrote and produced) and Hugh Wilson (who directed): How do you make a feel-good movie about baseball in a time when the only thing bigger than Major League baseball players' forearms is the Yankees payroll, and teams are so desperate for revenue that they've agreed to print ads for Spiderman II on the bases?

Make it about Little League, an organization so pure and principled that they haven't let another movie use the trademark since 1958's The Little Giants. Never mind that nasty scandal three years back when pitching sensation Danny Almonte was found to be 14 years old– two years too old for the league– in the midst of the Little League World Series, leading to his team's disqualification. Give us a bright story about a bunch of freckled misfits on an underdog team, some father-son bonding, and a come-from-behind win; you'll have a sure-fire summer hit.

Grisham and Wilson have done something far more treacherous. Though the script was written years before the Danny Almonte scandal unfolded, Mickey focuses on a young pitcher, played by a sulky Sean Salinas, who leads his team to the Little League World Series by claiming to be a year younger than he is. We understand that Mickey has real talent and was a dominant pitcher even when he was playing legally.

There's an automatic thrill in watching any overwhelming athletic display– it's why we still pay to watch steroid-stuffed batters hit home runs every second at-bat– but it's hard to be too moved by the spectacle of a 13-year-old with a false identity blazing pitches past his spindly legged 10-year-old opponents.

Fortunately, perhaps, we're not expected to. There's surprisingly little baseball in the first hour of Mickey: Our view of most games is limited to a few startling pitches. What comes in its place, unfortunately, is the tortured and torturous story explaining the source of the false identity.

Harry Connick Jr. plays Tripp Spence, Mickey's father– or Derrick's, before his name change– a small-town lawyer who finds himself under investigation for tax evasion and bankruptcy fraud. When an IRS agent (Mark Joy)– only slightly less cartoonishly menacing than The Matrix's Agent Smith– closes in, Spence does what any honest American would do: He assumes a new identity and flees with his son to Las Vegas.

Part of what's surprising about Mickey is that Spence isn't an honest American. He's guilty as sin, and though we're clearly meant to sympathize with him (several characters do their best to make the $98,000 he hid from the IRS sound like chump change), there's something odd about being expected to cheer while Spence and his son lie and cheat their way through the movie.

It's all for the love of Little League, though. In Nevada it occurs to Spence that his son, made 12 again by the miracle of identity theft, is eligible for another year of play. The moral question is disposed of with a less than sparkling father-son exchange: "But wouldn't that be cheating?" Derrick/Mickey asks his dad.

"Yeah," an affectless Connick says, "but you're Mickey now, so you're 12, so..." He trails off.

All is well, more or less, until Mickey carries his team into the national spotlight and blows his cover. The feds arrive just as the star pitcher is facing his sole challenge of the season, an overgrown Cuban team, in the Little League World Series finals. The crowd is torn between chants of "Mick-ey, Mick-ey" and "U-S-A," while we're torn between the game itself and back-room meetings between a certain Senator Martinez, the head of the IRS, the commissioner of Little League, and other unnamed suits. There's even a phone call from the President. While I won't say how the game ends, it's as inevitable as a three-pitch strikeout.

The final game is shot in classic baseball movie style, a mix of dancing-mascot montage and slow-mo throwing mechanics, and it makes the long wait seem worthwhile. As the plot summary no doubt suggests, though, Mickey is a movie with an identity crisis.

It's easy to sympathize with the folks at the Yahoo! movie database who ended up listing Mickey's genre as "Crime/Gangster, Drama and Kids/Family." Of course, Casablanca mixed genres, too. But a more apt comparison might be the baffling 1993 film Last Action Hero, starring the pre-gubernatorial Arnold Schwartzenegger. Like Hero, Mickey is caught between the world of kids, where baseball conquers all, and the world of adults, where moral compromise has real consequences.

Grisham and Wilson struggled for two years to find a distributor for the movie before taking up the task themselves, and this divide may be why: The movie has its heart in two places, and it's easy for the audience to get lost in between.

Connick is another liability. Justly better known for his piano chops than his acting chops, he spends the better part of Mickey looking like a man who can't shake the memory of last week's prostate exam. Mike Starr livens things in the role of Mickey's coach, but as the movie's only comic character, he sometimes seems to have wandered onto the set from a screwball sitcom filming nearby.

Of course, none of this addresses the most important question: Will the kids like it? In the words of one Little League-aged viewer I spoke to after the film, "It was pretty good. It was a little too long, though."

At least the good guys win in the end. At least I think they're the good guys.


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