Contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum, there are plenty of second acts in American lives — most often in American movies about middle-aged men and the redemptive power of sports. In The Rookie, a superior example of the genre, Dennis Quaid plays Jim Morris, a high school science teacher and baseball coach in a dusty Texas town whose dreams of being a professional pitcher, benched by a busted shoulder, are revived on a bet: If his ragtag team wins the district championship, he’ll try out for the majors.
We know where this is going from the first shot of buttercup-sweet sunlight on Quaid’s attractive, life-creased face, and from the devotional but ungussied intensity with which the actor finds the strike zone. We know this because screenwriter Mike Rich (”Finding Forrester”) and director John Lee Hancock (”My Dog Skip”) indulgently stretch out Morris’ mythic quest with a fearsome, approval-withholding career Army father (Brian Cox, well employed these days), an ideally supportive wife (Rachel Griffiths, ditto), and a rubbery little son who idolizes his daddy. We know this, too, because ”The Rookie” is anchored in Morris’ true story. (The teacher played two seasons with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.)
”The Rookie” runs into unnecessary extra innings. But something particularly clean shines in this American fairy tale, a quality of simplicity that’s almost as hard to achieve in such movies as a middle-aged man’s boyhood dreams.