October 09, 2001 1:35pm EST
Young Max Keeble (Alex D. Linz) is starting his first day of junior high school. After dreaming about how great it will be he soon learns there are bullies attractive girls who don't know his name and worse his family is going to move in a week. Amidst all of this pressure he decides that he has nothing to lose by bucking the system and taking the horse by the reins. Max thinks that his big move at the end of the week gives him the freedom to make that figurative "big move" against all the irritants in his life without retribution. He recruits best friends Megan (Zena Grey) and Robe (Josh Peck) to help him out and they "get even" (with comical effort) with the evil ice cream man the school tough guys and the egotistical principal. While the story is predictable it reaches beyond the "good guys always win" theme as Max realizes he can play by the rules and still have a good time.
Linz is Max Keeble the short cute moral hero. Despite his nerdy parents he seems to have inherited a pretty broad perspective for a kid: he genuinely takes everybody for face value and even affords them a second chance. He mixes well with the other actors taking the lead with natural rather than forced savvy. Grey as best friend Megan the small-but-spunky redhead who dons a different funky hairstyle with each new day of school compliments Linz's performance yet holds her own. Peck is Robe the pleasantly plump kid who doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. Orlando Brown is lunch money purloiner Dobbs who has a minor but creative role as a kid ready to "invest" everyone's funds with--or without--their permission. The adults should get some credit too. Principal Jindraike's (Larry Miller) obvious malapropisms word creations and animal dances lend further comic relief.
This movie plays on all the current fads of the day including sports songs and lingo. There's a cameo appearance by skateboard pioneer Tony Hawk; we hear the recurring melody of Britney Spears' song "Baby One More Time" whenever the hot 9th grade girl walks onto the set; and Max tells us right away that he has "phatitude"-- that is he's got a phat (cool) attitude. Obviously director Tim Hill is familiar with what kids like and with a resume loaded with Nickelodeon and Disney projects it is clear he's kept up on his homework. The major criticism comes with the pretty flat telling of the story: it unfolds chronologically without implementing many interesting edits or camera angles where there are perfect places to do so.
Freddie Prinze Jr. stars as Ryan Dunne the first local boy to break into the Cape Cod Baseball League--a stable of college all-stars who descend upon the idyllic seaside town for the summer to duke it out for pro scouts. Ryan is a fairly talented pitcher but tends to choke at key moments in a game. He's got a dad (Fred Ward) and a brother (Jason Gedrick) who work blue-collar jobs and (in a typically clichéd fashion) don't want to see Ryan fail as they have. But even with all the competition Ryan still manages to make friends with rowdy catcher Billy "Bru" Brubaker (Matthew Lillard). To complicate matters Ryan gets involved with the lovely and--surprise!--rich girl named Tenley Parrish (Jessica Biel) whose father (Bruce Davison) is none too pleased about his daughter's budding romance with the "boy from the wrong side of the tracks." The pressures are mounting. Will Ryan make it to the Big Show? And if so will we care?
No matter what he does Prinze seems to be in this teen flick rut. His Ryan may be the most complex character he has played so far but that isn't saying a whole lot. The actor has decent range and is capable of tackling heavier material. It's just time for him to grow up. Biel known best for her role as a troubled daughter on the family WB show 7th Heaven gets to stretch her wings here and does a good job playing an unspoiled rich girl who doesn't care what her family thinks. On the flip side Davison falls right into the villainous father figure role without trying anything new. Lillard underplays his talented slugger from USC yet manages to add a requisite amount of flair when needed. Still like his pal Prinze he needs to move on and join the big leagues. However a true standout is Brian Dennehy as the demanding but understanding coach. He is one of those actors you can always depend upon to give you a good performance.
The premise of the story in which the action is centered upon the Cape Cod Baseball League is different but the script never digs deep. Apparently the writers felt subtleties in a scene wouldn't adequately display the emotional impact needed so every cliché in the book is thrown right in your face. For example Ryan's embittered and widowed dad who has long given up his dreams will be damned if he sees Ryan fail. There are the typical barroom antics as well as the sneering rival pitcher (Corey Pearson) who wants Ryan out of the way. Or how about the "fast" girl in town (Brittany Murphy wasted in this role) with a heart of gold. You get the picture. It's clear director Michael Tollin enjoys the game of baseball. The film steps up a notch when the action is on the field. However many directors before him have portrayed the beloved sport better.