Entertainment Magazine: Film: Heartland Film Festival: 2010

The Yankles – Not Your Average Baseball Team, Not Your Average Movie

By Madelyn Ritrosky

“In the Big Inning...” it says on the film poster for The Yankles.   Talk about a clever play on words.  And Yankles?  As in the Yankees, you know, the baseball team.  But also as in a Yiddish word, meaning Jacob.   
In the movie, the Yankles are a baseball team, but they’re not typical.  The movie is about baseball, but it’s not a typical baseball movie.  It’s much more. 
The film is about the formation of an orthodox rabbinical college baseball team and the former major leaguer who becomes their coach.  He does so as part of community service he must do after being in prison for three drunk-driving arrests. 
The Yankles is fun, engrossing, enlightening – especially for those who are unfamiliar with the orthodox Jewish community – and a great choice for the Heartland Film Festival.   
Directed by David R. Brooks, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Zev Brooks, The Yankles does indeed deserve the Crystal Heart Award it won at Heartland as a film that interestingly explores the human condition with a message of hope. 
The Yankles turned out to be one of my favorites at Heartland this year.  In fact, it was a favorite of my festival-going companions too, meaning it has appeal to older retired folk as well as the pre-teen crowd – that is, my parents and my Entertainment Magazine collaborator, my son Jared. 
Although it is not a family film as such, it does have broad audience appeal with its mixture of drama and comedy, underdog sports team and romance, and ensemble cast of characters. 
David Brooks has been working in film production for years, but The Yankles is his feature film directorial debut.  The film has already played a number of film festivals and won some audience choice and best comedy awards. 
Jared and I not only had the chance to speak with David, but I also spoke with a cast member who was in attendance, Don Most (perhaps most widely known for his role as Ralph in the Happy Days television series).        
Jared was most curious about the baseball angle and asked David how much he knew about baseball.  David informed us of his Little League experiences as a kid, but he said he has no coaching experience.  It wasn’t exactly baseball that inspired him to write and direct The Yankles.  It was his own Jewish identity. 
He said the opening scene in The Chosen (1981), about a baseball-playing orthodox yeshiva student, is where the brainstorming all started. 

“Orthodox yeshiva students wearing black fedora hats and long black coats walk onto a Brooklyn blacktop and proceed to play a competitive and aggressive game of baseball against ordinary Jewish high school kids, while their rabbi coach sits on the bench with his face buried in the Talmud.  This show of force came as a shock, and I was proud to see yeshiva students knock a dent in the stereotype that Jews cannot play sports.  From Hank Greenberg to Sandy Koufax, there is no other single sport that has produced as many Jewish superstar athletes.  I began to think of the potential for a unique movie based entirely on the premise of an orthodox rabbinical college baseball team.” 
As they began writing, he and his brother wanted to avoid cheap laughs and stereotypes as well as anything tinged with victimization.  This was their background, their heritage, and they are proud of it.  “Our sensitivity stemmed from the fact that our father is a Rabbi who was raised in the orthodox section of Brooklyn and our uncle is the head of an orthodox yeshiva in Philadelphia.  Zev and I attended orthodox day schools in our youth, and Zev currently works as a cantor at a synagogue.” 
So the key was to be “funny without being silly” and deliver “principals without being preachy.”  They pulled it off. 
Those qualities are what attracted Don Most to the project.  He learned of the film through producer Cary Glieberman, who had recently met the Brooks brothers and produced Don’s most recent directing effort, Moola.  Not only did Cary Glieberman end up producing The Yankles, but Don loved the script when he read it.  As he noted, there is a lot happening in this film and among a number of interconnected characters.
Would-be coach Charlie Jones (Brian Wimmer, whose first major role was in the television series China Beach) finds that his old baseball friends want nothing to do with him as a tainted, washed-up ex-player on parole.  As the filmmakers’ synopsis puts it, he has to “rebuild his reputation and relationships, and in the process finds redemption.”
One of those wrecked relationships involves his ex-fiancé, Deborah Dubinsky (Susanne Sutchy).  She has come to embrace her Jewish heritage more deeply since the passing of her mother and break-up with alcoholic Charlie.  That puts her at odds with him, as a non-Jew, as he attempts to rebuild their relationship.  And incidentally, Wimmer and Sutchy are married in real life. 
Then there’s Deborah’s brother Elliot (Michael Buster).  An ex-minor leaguer, he gave up baseball to go to rabbinical college but starts up the school team.  Via a strategic game plan, Elliot brings together the upstart team and Charlie.  Despite initial difficulties, they end up working so well together that the team makes it to the college world series.  The more difficult task for Elliot is dealing with his estranged father, Frankie Dubs (Don Most), another ex-major leaguer. 
Don Most said the challenge for him was depicting the emotional transition for Frankie, where he’s a character initially hated by the audience because he can’t forgive Elliot for giving up on his baseball career.  Frankie has to come to terms with his son’s choices as well as his own life, and when he visits the grave of his deceased wife, as Don noted, we finally see glimmers of change. 
Interestingly, The Yankles was shot in the heart of Mormon country, in Provo, Utah.  And most of the cast and crew come from that general area.  While the film was shot three years ago, in late summer 2007, things halted during post-production when funding ran out.  It was finally completed in October 2009.  It was a long labor of love, for Zev and David first began working on the script in 1996 and weathered Hollywood’s repeated turn-down of their script.    
We are so glad they persevered.  The Yankles is a very good movie.  As the filmmakers suggest, it’s about real people with real problems but they find their way through second chances.  Now that’s uplifting – and with some fun in the process. 

Film Entertainment Magazine | Entertainment Magazine

© 2008-2010 Film Entertainment Magazine / EMOL.org. All rights reserved.

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