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FOUL BALL

This autumn, baseball fans are getting too little World Series and too much Ken Burns. In all likelihood, the last thing the strike-stricken multitudes need right now is another gooey baseball movie that fields the usual lineup of sentimental caricatures.

But that's what The Scout is. Apparently, Hollywood hasn't figured out that the fans' tolerance for preposterous exaggeration in the name of baseball myth goes only so far. Director Michael Ritchie should know better--earlier in his career, he gave us Downhill Racer and The Bad News Bears. But here Ritchie and three screenwriters try to stretch a scratch single into a home run, emotionally speaking.

Albert Brooks, who specializes in ordinary guys overwhelmed by circumstance (Defending Your Life, Lost in America), is one nimble comedian, and he gets the movie off to a fast start. Al Percolo, Brooks's downtrodden New York Yankees scout, is the picture of cynicism and defeat: He cooks on a hot plate in his scuzzy motel room, wears the same tattered straw hat out to the park every day and will do absolutely anything to land a prospect: "Mickey Mantle's sister was a nun," he tells the devout Catholic mother of one promising pitcher. "Named Mickey, too--but spelled with an `i.'"

This is funny stuff, and it makes for a promising beginning. But the minute the Yanks' nasty GM (Lane Smith) banishes Al to the wastes of central Mexico, things go downhill fast. That happens, oddly enough, because the scout finally finds what he's looking for--the King Kong of baseball. Steve Nebraska (Brendan Fraser) has a hundred-mile-an-hour heater and can whack dingers from both sides of the plate. A Natural. Looming right there next to the third-base taco stand.

Of course--and right here you can get in line for your cliches--Steve's also a big, goofy kid who eats twelve meals a day, loves to do laundry and has a dark secret in his past.

Little matter--on to the Big Apple. Where Steve gets a $55 million contract from George Steinbrenner himself, Al Percolo becomes his surrogate father and The Scout collapses in a pile of routine plays.

For some reason, the studio publicity blurb makes much of the movie's supposed "realism." In fact, the script, which went from Andrew Bergman to star Brooks and Monica Johnson, has little resemblance to the Roger Angell New Yorker article from which it was allegedly adapted.

Realism? How about an untested rookie who's never even thrown a pitch in the minor leagues starting the first game of the World Series? Can you stomach a Park Avenue shrink (Dianne Wiest) who divines Steve Nebraska's deep-seated problem in about a minute and a half? How about a showdown on the roof of Yankee Stadium, with national TV coverage and commentary by Bob Costas and Tim McCarver?

We're asked to swing at these wild pitches because, deep down, the whole thing is really the kind of sweet fantasy baseball romantics are reputed to sop up like cold beer. Good luck. When Steve Nebraska strikes out all 27 batters St. Louis sends to the plate, we're supposed to cheer. Guess again.

A sure sign of trouble in any movie is a glut of celebrity cameos. As irony would have it, the volatile Steinbrenner proves less of a caricature on screen than he is in real life; he apparently tried to chew the scenery, but Ritchie held him in check. Crooner Tony Bennett, enjoying a resurgence these days, has one wooden scene in a nightclub, then sings the national anthem in the Bronx.

Otherwise sitting on their asses this October, Ozzie Smith, Brett Saberhagen, Bob Tewksbury and a dozen more current and former Major Leaguers also pop up at the park, demanding their fees. A curse on all their houses--at least 'til April.

While we wait, The Scout deserves a quick shower.

 
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