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The Phenom
Johnny Simmons and Paul Giamatti have an unorthodox therapy session in "The Phenom."

You’ve seen Johnny Simmons around. The almost unbearably cute 29-year-old Dallas product has distinguished himself in Hollywood as the doomed boyfriend in Jennifer’s Body, the worshipful roadie in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and the closeted football star in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He moves front and center in the baseball drama The Phenom, which opens this week at AMC Parks at Arlington, and while it’s time that this longtime supporting player gets his own vehicle, he deserves better than this disappointing piece of work.

He plays Hopper Gibson Jr., a young pitcher for the Atlanta Braves who has been sent down to their AAA affiliate in nearby Gwinnett to clear his head after mysteriously losing his pitch control, Rick Ankiel-style, and giving up a grand slam home run to an opposing pitcher. Hoping to get his head on straight in time for the playoffs, the team assigns him to work with a psychiatrist named Mobley (Paul Giamatti) who’s a bit of a fallen whiz kid himself.

The scenes with the shrink are the best thing here, and they show you what writer-director Noah Buschel must have had in mind for this movie. The calm push-and-pull between the cagey therapist and a kid who’s been taught not to talk about his feelings is played with terrific understatement by the two actors. As Mobley tells stories about other flamed-out prodigies like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bobby Fischer while getting Hopper to throw with his eyes closed, you see a therapist gently probing for a way through to his illustrious but hard-shelled patient. This relationship should have been the center and possibly the entirety of the movie.

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Unfortunately, Hopper’s mental troubles have all too familiar roots in his abusive ex-convict dad (Ethan Hawke), a frustrated would-be ballplayer who gets out of prison and promptly resumes working out his son in the wee hours of the morning and referring to everyone around him as “losers” and “pussies.” Hawke can’t make anything out of this tired cliché, and Hopper’s relationship with his Yale-student girlfriend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) runs along similarly predictable lines. His encounter with a groupie (Louisa Krause) is a bizarre dead end, and his agent (Paul Adelstein) is introduced so clumsily that you might wonder who he is when he shows up talking to the press in a magician’s top hat and cape. For one scene, Buschel bathes Hopper in a blinking red light as he’s on the mound and floods the soundtrack with Tchaikovsky’s music and the sound of a blaring siren, an over-the-top touch that jars with the rest of this ground-level film. Errors like that might be understandable from a neophyte, but this is Buschel’s sixth feature film as a director. The Phenom starts with the germ of a promising idea, but its creator can’t take it beyond that.

[box_info]The Phenom
Starring Johnny Simmons, Paul Giamatti, and Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Noah Buschel. Rated R.[/box_info]

2 COMMENTS

  1. Kristian, you had me seeing Now You See Me 2 and The Nice Guys this summer. Still mad about that. Director of Sparrows Dance, Glass Chin has new movie? Think I will give it a try. Yeesh, sister.

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