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‘The Scout’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 30, 1994

As a baseball movie, Michael Ritchie's "The Scout" resembles less the realistic jock style of "Bull Durham" or "The Pride of the Yankees" than the fantastical tradition of "Field of Dreams" and "The Natural." But even in this dotty company, "The Scout" qualifies as a genuine -- and immensely enjoyable -- curiosity.

The main protagonist here is Al Percolo (Albert Brooks), a scout for the New York Yankees. Al's job is to beat the bushes for new talent, but lately his luck has ranged from bad to atrocious. As punishment for signing a young pitcher whose only accomplishment is to throw up on the mound, Al is sent by his boss (played with sinister relish by Lane Smith) to Mexico, where goats casually graze in the outfield.

In one town, though, Al comes across whiz kid Steve Nebraska (Brendan Fraser), who throws so hard that he routinely knocks the catcher and the umpire on their behinds. Realizing that Steve, who also hits like Babe Ruth, could be the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, Al moves quickly to sign him up and get him to New York.

However, soon after they arrive in the big city, Al begins to realize that the kid, who can't even remember how he got to Mexico in the first place, has more than a few screws loose. After a bidding war, the Yanks sign Steve to a $55 million contract, but when he hoists a photographer over his head during a press conference, the front office demands that he get a clean bill of mental health.

Working from a script by Brooks, Andrew Bergman and Monica Johnson, Ritchie gives these early scenes an unhurried, almost mellow feel. The film moves ahead at its own off-speed pace; like a knuckleball, it almost seems to float along. As an actor, Brooks has a great talent for comic mania, but in "The Scout" he relaxes more completely into his character than at any time since "Broadcast News." Yet his wits are razor-sharp, especially in his scenes with Dr. H. Aaron (a businesslike Dianne Wiest), the psychiatrist Al consults for Steve's head exam.

Though "The Scout" is essentially a comedy, it has a sobering dark side. Fraser's performance here is subtler and more complicated than it initially seems. At first, Steve comes across as a big, harmless goof, but soon it becomes clear that there is a hint of genuine pathology in his childlike eccentricity. Dr. Aaron tells Al that Steve has suppressed so much about his past that he may turn violent.

For most of the film, Al appears more concerned with Nebraska's ability to pitch than with his mental health. In the script, the scout uses the movie "King Kong" as his touchstone, and Steve is his Kong -- his ticket to success and fortune. But Al may be stunted in his own right. He knows that a ballplayer's personality and his performance on the field are intricately linked and fears that if Steve gets well, he might lose his edge.

When the Yankees win the division, Steve is expected to pitch the first game of the World Series. At this point, Ritchie attempts to deal with Steve's troubles, plus give the audience a rousing sports-movie finale, and this almost splits the movie right in two.

Though the film is anything but realistic, the exaggerations at its end -- complete with "Rocky"-style flourishes from composer Bill Conti -- seem too extreme even for fantasy. Maybe it's impossible for a Hollywood sports picture not to resort to pandering big-game cliches. But, until the film's conclusion, everything in this oddball item is so delightfully unexpected that the impossible seems within reach.

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