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Shallow Pop

Bernie Mac needs three more hits. He won't likely find one here.

Mr. 3000has low aspirations, which suits it well. It's about a 47-year-old baseball player trying to get three meager hits and the team for which he plays trying to climb out of fifth place and into third by the season's rapidly approaching end. Not much to root for, is it? This is the stuff of fine print, not big screens. And indeed, Mr. 3000feels much smaller than it looks, down to the casting of a TV star (Bernie Mac) who's the foundation of a wonderful sitcom but has thus far fared better when cast as window-dressing in movies (Ocean's Eleven, for instance, in which he turns a small stack of chips into a fortune's worth of memorable scenes).

But Mr. 3000, directed by Drumline's Charles Stone III, is less a comedy about achievement than it is a commentary on acclaim -- specifically the modern athlete's obsession with setting records, starring in video games and owning low-rent businesses that cash in on yesterday's fading triumphs. Come to think of it, Mr. 3000isn't even about the athlete at all. It's more about the fans and even the beat writers who adore them and reward them and forgive them, no matter their arrogance or insolence. Mac's character, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Stan Ross, abandons his team during a playoff run, spits insults into the cameras and microphones and treats the love of his life (Angela Bassett, playing an ESPN reporter who's apparently never heard the phrase "conflict of interest") like a base to be touched and abandoned, and still he alone packs the stands with cheering throngs. A man can be unlikable, but place a bat in his hand and instantly he becomes lovable.

Stan, seen early in the film during the 1995 season, considers his team a cast of nameless, faceless extras to be abandoned once he reaches his milestone. He's all swagger and bluster, shimmying up to the plate as the stadium public-address system plays his theme song -- "Shining Star" by Earth, Wind & Fire. As far as he's concerned, he's the sun around which everyone else rotates; with time, he won't even remember the names of the guys with whom he played. When first we see him, he's taunting a Red Sox rookie to serve up the pitch that will seal his Cooperstown immortality. When he's finally served up a fat one, he drives it into the kid's crotch, and he's less concerned with the damage done than with retrieving the valuable ball from the pitcher writhing on the mound.

We don't much like Stan, but he doesn't care what the fans think; he's the very definition of a man who would add insult to injury. But this serves him only to a point. Nine years after retirement, he owns his own strip mall (populated by establishments like 3000 Woks, 3000 Beeps, 3000 Cuts and so on) but still finds himself without an invite to the Hall of Fame. So he sucks up to the very writers and fans he spat on during his playing career, to the point of demanding the Brewers' president (played by Sex and the City's Mr. Big, Chris Noth) retire his number and hold Stan Ross Day so he can at least play the lovable lead. But even that's an impossible task: Former Brewers greats refuse to show, and he's introduced by a footnote player whose introduction is more of an insult: "If you get 3,000 hits, " he says, "you don't have to be a team player."

As it turns out, Stan doesn't even have 3,000 hits: Cooperstown officials discover three of his hits were counted twice, which means he will either have to suit up again or shut up about claiming his place alongside Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron and the 22 other legends on the exclusive list. Noth's character is only too happy to have the now-47-year-old Stan on his team, to pack the empty stands of a fifth-place team and, in the time it takes for "Y.M.C.A." to play over a training-routine montage, Stan's back behind the plate. His news teammates loathe him -- the arrogant dinosaur who damns them as a "bunch of Little Leaguers," shades of New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez's comments about his days with the Texas Rangers -- but none despises him more than "T-Rex" Pennebaker (Brian White), star of his own video game and a guy who would rather hit meaningless bases-empty homers than meager base hits. He's the younger, leaner, meaner version of Stan.

Of course, T-Rex and Stan will teach each other a few things about what it means to be part of a team. For all of its own bluster, Mr. 3000ultimately wants to be A Movie with a Heart, which it bobbles and drops too often to be taken seriously. What it considers character development is just a plot device: Stan doesn't evolve; he merely acts one way till the movie needs him to act differently to inch it forward, to a finale you can see coming without a program or a scorecard. It's no Bull Durham, but it's no bullshit either. Just another baseball movie hitting for average -- very average.

 
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