Friday, April 17, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Babe'is A Real Weeper

XX 1/2 "The Babe," with John Goodman, Kelly McGillis, Trini Alvarado. Directed by Arthur Hiller from a script by John Fusco. Aurora, Everett Mall, Factoria, Gateway, Grand Cinemas Alderwood, Kent, Overlake, Renton Village, Uptown, Valley drive-in. Rated "PG"- parental guidance suggested. --------------------------------------------------------------- Hollywood puts out three types of baseball movies. Type 1 is the respectful homage: "Pride of the Yankees" with Gary Cooper as a quietly noble Lou Gehrig. Type 2: the imaginative, offbeat charmer ("Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham") that captures the sport's grandeur and grittiness.

Then there are baseball movies like "The Babe," the splashy new paean to Babe Ruth starring John Goodman. This is the big, mooshy, swing-for-broke bio-epic that plays to the bleachers all the way.

George Herman Erhardt Ruth certainly is a prime candidate for this kind of cornball treatment. Probably the finest all-round ballplayer the game has produced, his genius on the field and colorful personality off it have made him a prime American folk hero.

Even his flaws - a Falstaffian appetite for women, food and fast cars, a violent temper - add to the slugger's timeless appeal, as do his humble origins and crude zest. But none of it would mean much if Babe hadn't smacked 50 home runs when the other top hitters were eking out 10 or 15.

"The Babe" doesn't sanitize Ruth, as did the awful 1948 film, "The Babe Ruth Story." But it pitches every Sultan of Swat cliche it can find, along with a slew of old-fangled movie cliches and mangled facts.

Directed by Arthur Hiller in effusive but choppy fashion, the movie follows Ruth (John Goodman) from his Baltimore Orioles rookie days, to his triumphs with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, to his sad last stand with the Boston Braves.

The best things about "The Babe" are its atmospheric view of '20s America (courtesy of veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler) and Goodman's wholly engaging lead performance.

The hefty star of TV's"Roseanne" resembles Ruth (especially in his bulkier years), and mimics his dainty base-trotting perfectly. Moreover, he exudes the cheerful vulgarity and raw vulnerability of a little boy inside a big man, a "Bambino" who never grows up.

Goodman isn't much of a baseball player (we never see him hit one outright) - but then, "The Babe" doesn't waste a lot of time on actual baseball. Sure, Ruth's famous "called" homer (he pointed to the stands and crushed one out there) and a few other career highlights show up in snippets of action. (The baseball scenes were shot in Chicago's Wrigley Field and other venerable ball parks.)

But the script by John Fusco (also the movie's producer, and the writer of "Thunderheart") goes sappy a lot, especially in its maudlin and superficial treatment of Babe's personal life. Here Ruth's courtship of his first wife Helen (the lovely Trini Alvarado) is an ultra-cute affair. Later, poor Helen is bum-rapped as a prim, pill-popping killjoy forever breaking up the Babe's fun.

As Claire, the second Mrs. Ruth, Kelly McGillis mines another cliche: tough-mouthed flapper with heart of gold. McGillis delivers some of the script's corniest lines with frightening zeal. "How does it feel to reach your dream?" she moonily asks Ruth at one point.

The movie gets more melodramatic as it goes along, descending into utter bathos when a washed-up Babe blubbers that his mother never loved him. And the famous home run Ruth hit for a boy recovering from an accident? It's now three home runs, and now they save little Johnny Sylvester's life.

Emotionally, the movie bonks you with a bat when it could be doing something a lot more interesting - like evoking more clearly the world of baseball-gone-by and Ruth's relationship to it.

Thanks to Goodman and the great Ruth mystique, "The Babe" does maintain a median level of entertainment. But somehow you want a movie about a fellow this big-natured and mythic to hit a home run. What we have here is more of a solid base hit.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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