-By Bruce Feld

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Nick Nolte shines in Off the Black as high-school umpire Ray Cooke, a man on his last legs. The ex-Vietnam vet is told by his doctor that years of rough living and heavy drinking have seriously wrecked his health and left him very little time. This is grim information Cooke keeps to himself. Coming up is his 40th high-school reunion and, although clearly a man who takes very few things seriously, Cooke is anxious to make a good impression.

At this juncture his house is trashed (toilet paper on his front yard; car windows shattered) by three high-school ball players who resent his last call (a ball, or off the black, hence the film's title), which cost the team a championship. Cooke catches one of the three, sensitive teenager Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan), and they begin an unlikely friendship. Tibbel's father (Timothy Hutton) has been devastated by the sudden but permanent departure of his wife, and has ceased relating to his children. Cooke's own son lives a considerable distance away, and although Cooke sends him homemade videos in an effort to communicate, there is no evidence that his son sees them or cares much about his father. An intimate relationship between the son with the emotionally wounded father and the father anxious for a son's love is not only predictable but inevitable.

Although Tibbel initially rejects the idea, Cooke eventually convinces him to pretend to be his son at the upcoming reunion. In dramatic terms, the success of the young lad at this function has very little impact. He is a nice young man who is polite and gracious and likeable. That bodes well for his future social functions, but he never commands much excitement, and we are never in doubt that he will be courteous and pleasant no matter the circumstances.

Ponsoldt's insights into divorce are fairly routine, and make Off the Black feel more appropriate for Lifetime cable television than feature films. His direction suffers from poor pacing, reminiscent of syrup slowly dripping from the maples. When the rendering of "Clementine" by Dave and his sister is the emotional highlight of the film, there is not much to cheer about. Although Nolte gives a thoroughly masterful performance, one great actor is never enough. Film, like baseball, is a team sport.

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