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'Angels in the Outfield'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 15, 1994


William Dear
Dermot Mulroney;
Joseph Gordon;
Milton Davis, Jr.;
Brenda Fricker;
Danny Glover;
Ben Johnson;
Jay O. Sanders;
Christopher Lloyd;
Tony Danza
Parental guidance suggested

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More bunk has been perpetrated in the name of baseball than in almost any other endeavor known to man. Now Disney steps to the plate with "Angels in the Outfield," a flimsy exercise in feel-good sentimentality so strained it suggests that even God scans the box scores.

Directed by William Dear, "Angels" may be thin, but it does manages to drag both divinity and social politics into the action. You know you're knee-deep in the muck of political correctness when Roger, the film's 11-year-old foster-child hero, ends a prayer for his favorite team to win the pennant with "Amen," then quickly hastens to add, "Or A-women."

Roger's team is the California Angels, and Roger needs them to win because his dad, an embittered, cigarette-smoking biker played as if he were in a different movie by Dermot Mulroney, promises that they'll be a family again when the team wins the championship. Because the Angels were in last place at the time, Dad felt safe in making his pledge. But that's only because he's one of those desperately sad grown-ups who refuse to believe in the possibility of divine intervention.

There's a definite hierarchy of believers and nonbelievers set up here. The good guys are the innocents, like Roger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his little friend J.P. (Milton Davis Jr.), or the enlightened adults, like Maggie (Brenda Fricker), their foster mother, or Angels manager George Knox (Danny Glover). The bad guys are cynical bottom-liners, like Hank (Ben Johnson), the club's owner, or downright evil, like the "Voice of the Angels" radio announcer Ranch Wilder (Jay O. Sanders).

Actually, Knox is a latecomer to enlightenment. At the beginning of the film, he's so fed up with the lackluster play of his team that he sparks a bench-clearing brawl with his own pitcher. (I've heard of a batter charging the mound, but this is a first.) After Roger's prayer, though, the team begins to show strange signs of life. An outfielder who usually trips over his shoelaces makes an impossible catch, and the catcher rockets a blast so powerful it splinters his bat. And though Knox is skeptical when Roger tells him the team is winning because of angels, he's too desperate to doubt him.

Since Roger is the only one who can actually see these heavenly assistants -- who zoom to earth under the insouciant command of Al the Angel (Christopher Lloyd) -- Knox has the boy send in signals whenever an angel shows up to help. It's a tough job for Glover trying to maintain Knox's crusty edge while thawing to the openheartedness of Roger and J.P. Though the actor can't make his character's conversion wholly believable, he does keep the wide-eyed stares to a minimum and maintains his dignity.

With heavenly hands massaging a pitcher's shoulders or teeing up a ball for a batter's swing, the earthly Angels make a predictable run from the basement to the championship. Along the way, Dear does an amiable job mixing slapstick comedy with pathos over Roger's father and uplifting talk about believing in miracles. But when Knox is to either renounce Roger and the angels or lose his job, you feel as if your heartstrings are being mugged.

Of course Knox can't renounce either his visible or invisible friends, and when he stands up for the right to believe in angels, the whole team stands up along with him. And if that weren't enough, the final pitch is placed in the hand of a burned-out pitcher (played by Tony Danza) who, as Al tells us, will be dead from cancer in six months. By the time the last out is called, the movie's shamelessness far outweighs its charms. Aimed at the minors, it's in a bush league all its own.

Angels in the Outfield is rated PG.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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