'The Final Season' pitches decency but not depth
The US corn surplus is in no way eased by "The Final Season," an Iowa high school baseball saga that goes heavy on the inspiration, sports-movie cliches, and high-fructose syrup. Based on a true story (aren't they all?), the movie is decent and heartfelt, and it eventually settles into some sharp diamond action, but the small-town homilies are dropped like an anvil. If you thought 1993's "Rudy" was too spare and unsentimental, "Final Season" is for you.
Interestingly, Sean Astin stars in both movies. Here he plays Kent Stock, a girls volleyball coach brought in to oversee the final baseball season at Norway Community High School in 1991. The tiny farming town (pop. 586) has won 19 state championships in 23 years, but a callous administrator (Marshall Bell) is merging the school with a bigger one 20 miles away, firing the team's beloved coach (Powers Boothe) to make his point.
Mr. Meanypants expects the untested Kent to bring the Norway nine down in flames, but he obviously hasn't seen enough underdog sports films. Director David Mickey Evans and writers Art D'Alessandro and James Grayford take the 1986 basketball classic "Hoosiers" as a blueprint, using the lives of the players and their coach to build a portrait of a caring, deeply rooted community.
When it works, "The Final Season" coasts along on earnestness and the memory of better movies. When it doesn't - when the characters are delivering lines like "It's about more than winning. It's about playing the game right" - the film sinks to the level of a Ford commercial. Or maybe Nathan Wang's obnoxious faux-Americana score just makes it seem that way.
The calculus here is Small Town Good, Big City Unspeakably Evil. (The film's not even making it out of suburbs into Boston theaters.) Unfortunately, that approach strands actor Michael Angarano and his character, Mitch Akers, a rebellious Chicago teen sent back to Grandpa's (James Gammon) to larn him some manners and morals. If there's a dramatic turning point between Mitch's James Dean phase and his reincarnation as the Jason Varitek of Iowa, the film doesn't bother to show it.
It does get into some fairly smart baseball toward the end - the music eases up on the Coplandesque fanfares for a few innings, as though hunkering down to watch. "The Final Season" knows when a player would bunt and why (and where), and it knows the hard-won miracles of infield defense. Somebody here understands that such things can be more validly moving than heartland platitudes.
Young ballplayers and grandparents should enjoy the movie, then, and those who prefer their championship seasons more predictable than anything unfolding at Fenway tonight. Respectful and old-fashioned to a fault, "The Final Season" wants simply to be the Best Picture of 1952.