With the normally vapid, blank and bloodless Freddie Prinze, Jr. heading up the cast and a bikini-heavy ad campaign, the amateur baseball movie "Summer Catch" looked to be a brain-dead, college-age "Bull Durham" wannabe. So imagine my surprise to find it an amusing and likable -- if shallow and sometimes bumbling -- romanticized comedy about emerging ballplayers itching for their big-league chance.
The picture takes place during in the summer baseball season at Cape Cod, where college athletes from all over the country come to play for free and hopefully get discovered by major and minor league scouts. The on-the-diamond parts of the picture are poorly structured and dependent entirely on play-by-play narration that isn't backed up by the action on the screen. ("The big story so far is Ryan Dunne...," says the announcer. Oh yeah, why's that?)
The characters are stock and two-dimensional -- the party animal (Matthew Lillard), the flamboyant show-off rival (Corey Pearson) of the struggling-with-his-inner demons hometown hero (Prinze).
The magical baseball voice-overs and other philosophical dialogue are of the dime-store variety. "You want big rewards? You gotta take big risks," encourages the sexy, independent daughter (Jessica Biel) of the richest guy in town (Bruce Davidson) -- whose hackles are raised at the idea of his angel dating Prinze. You see, Prinze is their blue-collar-and-proud lawn boy when he's not throwing 95 mph fastballs.
But somehow the performances hold "Summer Catch" together in spite of it all.
For the first time in his career, Prinze ("Head Over Heels," "Boys and Girls," "She's All That") displays more than two facial expressions and exudes enough charm to appeal to someone over the age of 14. I genuinely liked his character, in spite of the fact that he's grossly underwritten. Aside from three or four weak pitches, we never actually see any sign of him struggling with those supposed inner demons.
He has good chemistry with Biel too. Their flirtation is sweet and zesty, and even though her character is just as stock as his, she fleshes the girl out very well -- and I'm not talking just about her bikinis and tight little halter tops.
The humor is cheap but funny (Prinze and Lillard each end up wearing nothing but a girl's thong in separate scenes). And most refreshing of all is the fact that director Mike Tollin (whose TV and producer credits are all sports-related) wisely dodges quite a few looming clichés. There's no climactic showdown between Prinze and the show-off. Prinze doesn't become alienated from his slacker local pals because he suddenly spends more time with his teammates. His dad's a drunk, but it's not used as a narrative crutch to add conflict to the story.
Occasionally, "Summer Catch" is even clever, like when Prinze and Biel get in a fight and she apologizes by coming over to mow his lawn.
This isn't really a good sports movie. It's only a mediocre romantic comedy. But as a matinee for the dog days of summer, I have to admit I liked it in spite of myself.