Nolte Brightens 'Black'

Friday, December 22, 2006

"Off the Black" is all scenery chewing, all the time, courtesy of Nick Nolte. As an unpopular, constantly besotted umpire whose controversial calls break young hearts, he practically wipes set debris from the corners of his mouth. And yet Nolte is the best reason to watch the movie. (See Film Notes on Page 31.)

When Ray Cook (Nolte) ruins another game for a baseball team, three disgruntled players, including pitcher Dave Tibbel (the adorably blue-eyed Trevor Morgan), decide to trash his back yard one night with toilet paper streamers. But Ray, who hasn't lost his Vietnam-tested vigilance, catches them in the act, cornering Dave with a gun.

It's the beginning of a hokey friendship between the curmudgeonly loner and the sensitive teenager, and your only relief from the predictability and the cheesiness is Nolte's hard-bitten, gravel-voiced performance. Soon enough, Ray's visiting every day, sitting at the feet of the master of hard knocks. What, your dad never let you drink beer? Never took you fishing? Never talked about women? You get the idea. (As Dave's real father, an existential milquetoast who can barely establish eye contact with his children, Timothy Hutton's enervated performance is surely informed by frustration at such an underdeveloped role.)

Writer-director James Ponsoldt's film treats big subjects -- loneliness, coming-of-age and father-son relationships -- with such half-baked conviction, it's a wonder the screen doesn't redden with embarrassment. Which makes it all the more gratifying to watch Nolte pulverize the dramatic banality around him.

-- Desson Thomson

Off the Black R, 92 minutes Contains profanity. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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