by Ed Symkus

It looks like former actor (C.H.U.D. 2: Bud the Chud) and producer (Kenan & amp; Kel) Brian Robbins has finally found his niche -- as a director. He's already made two sports-related movies -- the (young) crowd-pleasing and fairly successful football film Varsity Blues and, hoping to jump on the popularity of pro wrestling, the embarrassingly awful box office failure Ready to Rumble.

The former film was about teenagers growing into adulthood; the latter was about adults who acted like preteens of the dumb sort. His new one, this time about baseball, features a cast of eight-year-olds who, believe it or not, actually come across as real live eight-year-olds.

That's the good news, and there isn't much more of it. Here we have two films in one. There's the story of Conor O'Neill (Keanu Reeves), a bland fellow who has a habit of making bad sporting bets with nasty bookies, then reneging or at least stalling on his payments. When first met, he's at the point where if he doesn't start forking over some big bucks to some angry, antsy bad guys, he's most likely in line for receiving a couple of breaks in his bones. He's a hard guy to have any sympathy for, because the character comes across as stupid, as someone who has no idea when to quit and as someone who's going to keep hanging out with the wrong element. He's a loser in more ways than one.

A possible way out of his situation, offered by a well-off but empty pal (Mike McGlone), leads to the other part of the film. O'Neill owes many thousands of dollars, and the pal, tired of making loans to him, says he'll give him $500 a week if he'll help him coach a baseball team for inner city kids. And in the first of many plot head scratchers (really, what on earth is $500 a week going to do for someone who's being chased by goons?), he accepts. But he soon realizes what his pal is all about when O'Neill is left holding the bag of bats and told that he's going to be doing this assignment alone.

Enter the kids, a ragtag but generally nice group of black boys living in New York projects who want nothing more than to take part in a good game of baseball, but they need some direction. Or do they? Get ready to start scratching that noggin again. When these kids take the field, they're a well-oiled, tight bunch of players, certainly out-performing any eight-year-olds either in previous movies or in real life.

Count that as the film's only real surprise, because -- guess what? -- O'Neill is immediately put into the fish-out-of-water position, which lasts about the length of half a reel, because although he says he wants out, he's fast becoming a mentor or friend or father-figure to all the kids on the team. And then there's their teacher, Miss Wilkes (Diane Lane), who is so obviously, almost from the second she's introduced, ready-made to be the possible love interest for our supposedly beleaguered coach.

Big problem here, though. The two actors may look good apart -- Reeves is still a handsome devil, and Lane, well, Lane is one of the most beautiful women in the business and is particularly attractive, we learn, when she's wears paisley. But there's just no -- here comes that magic word -- chemistry between them. And worse, there's not really any purpose for her character even to be in the film. She's strictly a sidebar story to the main action.

Ah, yes, the main action. Things keep jumping back and forth between the gambling problems and difficulties in and around the baseball business. Some of those involve a jerky coach on an opposing team, some are about rules that have been bent that now must be straightened, some center on O'Neill's dealings with people who just don't like him.

Surprisingly (or not, since most of this movie is sloppily written anyway), the gambling issues suddenly just go away and everything is about kids and baseball. But the film's biggest problem is saved for the ending. It looks like no one involved with this had a chance to see Pay It Forward, an interesting movie that came to a crashing halt and box office disaster when, out of the blue, it concluded with an unnecessarily tragic turn of events.. The same kind of thing happens here, for no reason that makes any sense, resulting in what can only be compared to the audience being slapped in the face when they thought they were going to be smiling. This film, too, will fail because nobody in its target audience wants to go home in a bad mood.

Dreamworks Animation: The Exhibition @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 11
  • or