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The Scout Strikes Out

There isn't much baseball in The Scout, but there hasn't been much baseball in baseball the past few years either. And we know how that ended up: a bunch of dim bulbs ruined the fun for everyone by taking a frivolous enterprise far too seriously.

The same is true of The Scout, which should have been a simple and sweet tale of a baseball executive and a baseball talent and ends up tripping over its own sense of importance, although the movie might serve as a nice diversion for sports fans with kids. The baseball exec, and the scout of the title, is Al Percolo (Albert Brooks), who's down on his luck and down in Mexico trying to find a star who can give him entree back into the big leagues. The talent is Steve Nebraska (Brendon Fraser), a pitcher who throws so hard he knocks his catchers over. Nebraska is referred to in the script as "the greatest ballplayer who ever lived." I suspect that the reason he wasn't called instead "the world's greatest ballplayer" is so popcorn-munchers wouldn't confuse Nebraska with the world's greatest athlete. That person -- in the form of Jan Michael Vincent -- was the star of Disney's 1973 film, The World's Greatest Athlete a cheery, harmless flick that almost seems a model for The Scout.

Both The Scout and The World's Greatest Athlete tell a friendly tale of a down-on-his-luck recruiter and an idiot sports savant. The sports star and his handler bumble through the world of sports in a father-son relationship, win glory all around and learn valuable lessons, etc. Moreover, in The World's Greatest Athlete, the best scenes are the early ones set in Africa, where a track-and-field wonder is found. And in The Scout, the best scenes are the early ones set in Mexico, where a baseball phenom is discovered.

Sure, Albert Brooks is funnier and more likable than Disney's Tim Conway -- no surprise. But the sad truth is, The World's Greatest Athlete made fewer mistakes than the current offering. A story that starts with a stupid premise should commit to that stupid premise; The World's Greatest Athlete did just that and delivered what it promised. No more, maybe, but no less either.

The Scout refuses to commit to its happy formula. Instead, Albert Brooks goes overboard in his attempts to truly be, to fully realize, the character of Yankees' scout Al Percolo. Why? Albert Brooks is fine and funny as Albert Brooks. He never does anything else, no one expects him to do anything else, and when he tries to do something else he just gets in the way of his own fine persona. I'll grant that the little straw hat is cute, the bifocals are a nice touch, but Brooks' straining for ultra-realism sets a sad precedent.

Though Mexico is wonderful -- the scenes there of joyous players and delighted fans make one hope there really might be a golden place where sports are played and watched for sheer fun -- once the scout finds Nebraska, signs him and they return to New York, harsh and stupid realities take hold. Spectacular images of a Mexican paradise where pitchers leave the mound for important phone calls and goats graze in the outfield give way to scenes of Steve Nebraska in therapy and, worse, acting angsty and then acting out. Why? There's no good explanation, other than that some brainless official at Twentieth Century Fox thought this would make the movie more meaningful. Instead, the whole middle section of The Scout is lost to Nebraska working through his problem -- though exactly what that problem might be is never revealed, only hinted at.

The movie ends, predictably enough, with the big game, in this case the World Series. Pre-game tension goes on forever and is completely unsuspenseful. Rather than rah rah, it's blah blah. Many cameos by George Steinbrenner help to drag the picture down.

For all this, The Scout is cute as heck. Still, had it been less ambitious, or more committed to realizing its vague ambitions, it would have been more satisfying.

The Scout.
With Albert Brooks, Brendan Fraser and Dianne Wiest.
Rated PG-13.

102 minutes.

 
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