Judge Clark Douglas couldn't even make the softball team.
In the big inning…
"Don't worry. They'll never make it that far."
Facts of the Case
Charlie Jones (Brian Wimmer, Tank Girl) used to be one of the most talented players in major league baseball. Alas, after a string of DUI arrests and finally a lengthy prison sentence, Charlie's career is brought to a tragic halt. Now Charlie is out on parole, but his reputation is shot and his girlfriend Deborah (Susanne Sutchy, Everwood) is seeing someone else. Charlie needs to do 192 hours of community service, but none of the local little league or high school teams will have him. However, Deborah's brother Elliot (Michael Buster, The Summer House) has an idea: what if Charlie agrees to coach a baseball team comprised of Elliot's fellow Jewish orthodox yeshiva students? Charlie grumbles at the idea, but would rather be coaching baseball than picking up garbage, so he accepts. Initially, the relationship between the team and their new coach is strictly a business proposition: Charlie needs the community service hours, the team needs a coach who actually knows a thing or two about baseball. Even so, genuine relationships begin to develop as time passes. Could "The Yankles" actually make it all the way to the playoffs this year?
As someone who was raised in a very religious home, I've seen quite a few Christian movies over the course of my life. Every now and then you'll run into something artful and moving, but for the most part these flicks are pulpit-pounding sermons which only halfheartedly pretend to be about something other than bringing salvation to the viewer. The Yankles is essentially a Jewish variation on that sort of film, ultimately using its narrative as a platform to promote the Jewish faith as the One True Path. Thankfully, it's also the all-too-rare sort of religious film that actually manages to be pretty entertaining and engaging when it isn't proselytizing.
Granted, The Yankles was produced on a shoestring budget, and it shows. Quite a few of the cast members struggle with their line readings, and star Brian Wimmer might as well be wearing a billboard which reads, "Affordable Kevin Costner Substitute." The baseball scenes tend to be few and far between, and when they do appear, they're staged in a competent but rather unremarkable fashion. Some of the heavier dramatic scenes are undercut by clunky, obvious dialogue, and much of the humor is pretty groan-inducing (after being told that he needs to stick to "acceptable" Jewish swear words, Charlie begins shouting things like, "Come on, putz! No schmucking way!"). On top of that, the plot is a thoroughly conventional rags-to-riches sports story. So why did I like this movie as much as I did? I think it has something to do with the genuine passion the filmmakers have for their subject.
It's clear that the makers of The Yankles have a good deal of familiarity with this world, and the yeshiva students are drawn in lovingly detailed fashion. There's also a tremendous amount of chemistry between the cast members, a warm playfulness that more than compensates for the occasional stilted line readings. There's such a huge difference between indie films which simply attempt to copy proven formulas and indie films which have a story to tell that the filmmakers are personally invested in, and there's no question that The Yankles falls into the latter camp. Additionally, the screenplay actually does an impressive job of juggling a series of complicated plot threads without ever losing too much focus on any specific area. In fact, the only serious misstep the screenplay makes—aside from delivering a particularly weak subplot involving Charlie's attempt to win back his ex-girlfriend—is a scene in which players rage about being asked to play baseball on Shabbat, which will cause unintentional giggles from some viewers due to its similarity to a scene in The Big Lebowski.
The performances aren't going to win any awards outside of small Jewish film festivals here and there, but the assorted players tend to be well-cast. Wimmer is an effectively bedraggled lead of sorts, and he's convincing as both the sour ex-con and as the eventual inspirational team leader. The best performance comes from Jesse Bennett as "The Rebbe," the spiritual leader who makes a big impression in his handful of scenes. Former Happy Days cast member Don Most also turns up to deliver an intense yet somewhat overcooked performance as Elliot's embittered father, while Jeff Olson seems to enjoy hamming it up as the film's anti-Semitic villain.
The Yankles (Blu-ray) has received a satisfying 1080p/2.35:1 transfer which offers impressive detail throughout. The movie isn't anything special on a visual level, but what's here is presented with considerable clarity. The level of depth is decent, flesh tones are natural and shading is solid during the handful of darker scenes (for this most part, this a film loaded with bright, sunny atmosphere). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is functional, but unremarkable. While some of the musical cues were a bit on-the-nose (as are quite a few things in this movie, actually), the score is well-mixed and blends nicely with the dialogue. Ambient sound design tends to be pretty minimal. Supplements include a commentary with director David R. Brooks (no relation to the conservative columnist) and co-writer Zev Brooks, some deleted scenes, a handful of raw behind-the-scenes footage, character bios and a trailer.
There's a terrific sports comedy hiding inside The Yankles, a movie that is subtler, less dogmatic and better-equipped to handle its more compelling ideas. Even so, it has a certain scruffy charm which makes it reasonably entertaining in spite of its many flaws.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
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