- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

"Summer Catch" provides its own out-of-context epitaph when a character remarks, petulantly, "I just wanted to do nothing for the summer." The film amounts to two hours of moviegoing nothingness.

The pretext might have seemed attractive at some point, long before the screenplay was written and the production completed. Why not set a sports-world romantic comedy against the backdrop of a venerable summer baseball league on Cape Cod, a 44-game showcase for promising college-age players?

Sounds promising enough, in reliable hands. "Catch," alas, is the handiwork of crass bunglers. Formulaic degradation of a facetious kind begins to destroy the promise in the first episode, which locates hometown prospect Ryan Dunne (Freddie Prinze Jr.) at the ballpark in Chatham, Mass., doubled in everything except panoramic vistas by Southport, N.C.

He plans to camp out overnight to report bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to manager John Schiffner (Brian Dennehy) in the morning. Darned if he isn't ambushed by carousing cronies, notably Brittany Murphy as the shamelessly hedonistic Dede Mulligan, who likes to pour beer into the mouths of her boyfriends.

What with one distraction and another, Ryan oversleeps and reports late — garbed only in Dede's fuchsia thong — for the first team meeting of the Chatham Athletics. Gruff but forgiving, the skipper warns him that he starts the season with two strikes against him.

To his credit, director Mike Tollin introduces Mr. Dennehy with an amusing pictorial flourish: Most of the actor's bulk fills the picture frame, but an open box of Dunkin' Donuts is positioned playfully off to his right. Presumably, Ryan wouldn't have caught the boss in such a tolerant mood without the calming influence of doughnuts.

The gist of the plot is that Ryan, a left-handed pitcher, has acquired a self-defeating rap sheet that could sabotage his last best chance to make a favorable impression on major-league scouts during the cape summer season. He dropped out of Boston College. He got thrown off a junior college squad in Framingham. He may never have gotten over his mother's premature death.

Employed by his father, Fred Ward as a Chatham landscaper named Sean Dunne, the hero seems to be a gardening menace when driving a mower. Dede's susceptibility is aggravated when Ryan ogles local rich girl Tenley Parrish (Jessica Biel) as she ascends from her pool in a dripping bikini and he mows down the flower bed and collides with a bird feeder.

Nevertheless, the poshly named and impressively shaped Tenley becomes Ryan's reward for justifying the faith that friends and family have invested in him. The confirmation is delayed until the final game of the season, when a sheer fluke allows Ryan one final but sterling start. The writing is so slack that there's not even much suspense surrounding this do-or-die effort.

We have been tipped to the reassuring fact that a Phillies scout played by John C. McGinley likes Ryan's stuff so much that he'll probably offer a minor-league contract even if the kid fails to regain the starting rotation. Luscious Tenley drops by the park to wave goodbye as she's headed toward the airport. The fact that Ryan has a no-hitter going in the ninth inning seems to make no impression on the girl.

She has been consorting with him most of the summer. Her younger sister is the team's gung-ho mascot. She has played cute games of catch with Ryan. His last start is an afterthought? She's even cursed with the following nitwit line: "What's a no-hitter?" When do Hollywood filmmakers pay attention to their work? Evidently, way too late to correct all the expendable imbecilities. On the positive side, plenty of opportunistic clean-up work is left for sarcastic movie reviewers.

To be fair, Ryan and Tenley have suffered a bit of an estrangement before the finale patches things up. Ostensibly, she is headed for a job in San Francisco with her uncle. I jumped to the conclusion it must be motivational counseling because much of her interplay with Ryan involves remedial ego-massaging.

"You just have to allow yourself to succeed," she volunteers at one point. "You want big rewards? You gotta take big risks." It's possible that she doesn't have to fly across country to put out a shingle. Ryan's older brother Mike (Jason Gedrick), a Chatham bartender, says much the same thing before the big game: "Believe in yourself. Let yourself be great."

It's amusing to imagine the men responsible for this movie paying gurus to murmur similar sentiments between takes. There are some odd missed opportunities.

Mr. Dennehy is so reliably laughable that I was surprised his character wasn't more intrusive. At one point, when recalling a fond baseball memory for Mr. Prinze, he seems to be preparing for a song interlude. Specifically, "Some Enchanted Evening," with the lyric slightly altered to "once you have found it, never let it go," meaning your pitching prowess.

The movie could use additional in-your-face cliches, such as Mr. Dennehy's peerless rebuke to misbehaving players, "Get the hell out of here, all of you; I'm sick of the sight of you."

Beverly D'Angelo is a joke cast member, kept out of sight as a Chatham trollop who likes to initiate the ballplayers who happen to be her houseguests for the summer. A movie career begins to look thankless when a superior actress is reduced, in middle age, to the shabby, peekaboo role of a small-town nympho.

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