Monday, August 07, 2006



By Duane Byrge

PARK CITY -- In baseball terms, it's a breaking ball -- looking like one kind of story pitch, but curving into another. While tag-wise, it's a sports story, "Off the Black" is more accurately a father-son story, told with gritty finesse and laced with a strong, hard performance from Nick Nolte.

Like the world champion White Sox, "Off the Black" plays smart ball and has no big power ingredient, but will eke out some decent commercial runs via the cable and video paths. The title is umpire-ese for a pitch that just misses the black edges of the plate and is a ball; in actuality, this story pitch is truly "on the black," and a nifty strike.

Fittingly, Nolte stars as a jock-gone-to-seed, once a helluva a player and a popular hell-raiser. He now grinds out a living at a car junkyard, while ump-ing baseball, mainly high school home talent. Creaking even more than he did in "North Dallas 40," Nolte clues us to the after-pain of sports glory. Each night, he plops into his easy chair and watches baseball on the tube, guzzling beer with only his ugly mutt for company.

When the high-school star pitcher, and a pair of his team-mates, toilet-paper Nolte's house, he catches the hurler in the act. Tells him he won't call the cops, if he cleans up the mess. It's here in the story's second inning that "Off the Black" hits its stride. Nolte and the kid develop a gruff attachment and, surprisingly, the boozing-losing Nolte becomes a father figure for the hurler. From the other side of the relationship plate, he becomes Nolte's surrogate son.

Its sensitivity grooved in guy-speak -- belches, pats, grunts -- "Off the Black" is as tender a relationship story as you'd hear over-verbalized on Lifetime. Stand-up applause to filmmaker James Ponsoldt and to his scrappy crew, especially production designer Anthony Gasparro for the spare but telling, macho-man furnishings.

Like a good pitcher, Trevor Morgan varies his emotions and perfectly grooves his role as the high-school star. Huffing and puffing, Nolte plops around with brilliant finesse, smartly exposing this frustrated old ballplayer's inside strength and fears.

In a supporting role as the teen ballplayer's depressed father, Timothy Hutton is haunting as a man who is functionally comatose.