Shooting for a fish-out-of-water, Bad News Bears vibe, the clash of cultures comedy The Yankles opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this week. The film relates the well-meaning story of an Orthodox Jewish Rabbinical college that whimsically opts to participate in intercollegiate baseball, and must call upon the knowledge and technical ability of a disgraced, formerly pro-league gentile in order to coach them through. The movie attempts to pattern itself after a unique subset of sports movies like A League of Their Own and Remember the Titans, which capitalize on quirky dark horse competitors triumphing over adversity. Sadly, its awkward execution and painstakingly obvious lack of interest in actual sports prevent it from realizing the potential of its premise, reducing it to a plodding and laboriously PC exercise in promoting cultural tolerance.
Washed up and depressed following a string of humiliating arrests for public drunkenness and driving while intoxicated, formerly promising pro baseball player Charlie Jones is dismissed from his contract and sentenced to a brief prison term, followed by a slog of community service. Hoping to at least make his legally mandated punishment a bit more tolerable, Charlie resolves to offer his skills as a baseball coach free of charge to whichever area schools are wanting, but his checkered history makes him undesirable, and virtually all of his applications are rejected. At the end of his rope, Charlie is at last approached by Elliot, the brother of Charlie’s old flame and a practicing Jew, who in the interim years since his and Charlie’s last meeting has become more deeply invested in his faith and enrolled in college to become a Rabbi.
Following approval from Charlie’s parole officer, Elliot introduces him to a promising, but largely inept collection of impromptu baseball players, none of whom, with the exception of Elliot, have any real experience. The issue is further compounded by traditional restrictions of Jewish Orthodoxy – the team members can’t wear traditional baseball uniforms, can’t play games on Saturdays or sacred holidays, and are apt to quibble over scriptural interpretations of weird, minor issues (one team member protests that he cannot “slide” into a base because endangering the body for any lesser purpose than to save a human life is forbidden). Under Charlie’s guidance, however, the team persistently improves, despite the machinations of cartoonishly anti-Semitic, suspenders-wearing fat cats apparently running the intercollegiate league. Charlie, meanwhile, attempts to rekindle his romance with Elliot’s sister Deborah, hindered by Deborah’s own recent rededication to her faith, and consequent reluctance to pursue a relationship with any man who is not Jewish.
The tragedy of The Yankles is that it squanders an intriguing premise with real comic potential by cutting too many corners and remaining too committed to a rigid ideological viewpoint. From a purely technical perspective, its most glaring problem is that there are no extended baseball sequences – the game happens, the final score is announced, and the next scene is about what it means for the story and characters that the team has either won or lost. This seems like an odd approach to a film essentially about sports, but its runtime is so formidable that, without sequences of extended gameplay, it also begins to feel absurdly padded. The Yankles also suffers from weak characterization, and more importantly, from thematic unwillingness to compromise – it isn’t just afraid to capitulate to challenges to orthodox theology, it’s afraid to legitimately challenge them at all. The result is that no actual, meaningful confrontations end up occurring between Charlie’s secular philosophy and the religious doctrine that characterizes the Rabbinical college at all – Charlie learns basically nothing from the students and faculty other than a cursory understanding and appreciation for Jewish culture, and the students, likewise, gain nothing of value from their relationship with Charlie except for technical ability.
It’s genuinely a shame and a disappointment that The Yankles is so lackluster, considering that, with stronger execution, it could have easily brought a fresh and revitalizing twist to a familiar and beloved sports subgenre. On the upside, the movie does contain one scene where a fat Rabbi starts doing a gangsta rap in full regalia, so if that sounds like your idea of a hilarious time, then belly up.