The Reeler


December 8, 2006

Off the Black

Vibrant screen chemistry doesn't quite burst Nolte melodrama's soapy bubble

Nick Nolte seems to be morphing, in look and sound, into to a less benign version of Tom Waits. The difference, of course, is that Waits's gruff vibe is the perfect contrast to his melodic tranquility, while Nolte just sounds old and cranky. That makes him the ideal candidate to play the over-the-hill high school baseball umpire Ray Cook in Off the Black, though his qualifications for the role are the best thing this standard, heartwarming buddy movie has going for it.

Ray’s better half, a young athlete named Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan), stumbles into the old man's complicated life fueled with rage and leaves with something closer to compassion. After the umpire makes a call that causes Dave to lose a game, he retaliates with a midnight journey to Ray's house to assault it with his typically teenaged arsenal: graffiti and toilet paper. As it turns out, this ump doesn't take abuse lying down, and quickly apprehends the hooligan at gunpoint. Forced to clean up the mess, Dave gets a rare glimpse into Ray's lonely existence. The initial awkwardness of the situation subsides over the course of several visits, and what is left is Dave's fascination with the middle-aged bachelor’s enigmatic existence. Eventually, Ray proposes that Dave accompany him to his 40th high school reunion, under the guise of being his son, and all debts are paid.

The set-up suggests a predictable and cumbersome comedic scenario, but the reunion segment is one minor part of a basic exploration of solitude. Ray brings Dave along in order to prove to his long lost buddies that he isn’t a failure, and Dave, struggling with being the product of one parent household -- a teen melodrama staple -- begins to understand Ray’s dilemma. It turns out the duo have a lot in common, although the older man comes to represent a future Dave would rather avoid.

The quieter scenes between these two characters are well played, as both are treated as distinct products of their respective generations, especially when Ray discusses his war experience. "You asked to go to Vietnam?" Dave gasps, and Ray responds with a contemplative glare. With unbiased curiosity, the moment addresses how angst-ridden youth perceive their elders with a mixture of confusion and curiosity.

Writer-director James Ponsoldt's light narrative touch soon thickens to a high lather, and the film falls into soapy convention in its final minutes. Still, Nolte and Morgan have vibrant screen chemistry, and their interaction stocks the film's 92 minutes with plenty of intelligent exchanges. Considering that the premise sounds like a bastardized version of Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, Ponsoldt's ability to tell a simple, affecting yarn without veering into the well-worn of territory cheap humor illuminates his talent. Anyone who can extract pathos from Nolte without diminishing his trademark grit deserves credit where it's due.

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