Father & faux son reunion

  • by David Lamble
  • Monday December 11, 2006
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In Off the Black, a nervous young man is listening to a forlorn monologue delivered by a garrulous, paunchy, beer-guzzling part-time high school umpire. Dave Tibble (Trevor Morgan) has become a captive audience for Ray Cook (Nick Nolte) due to a stupid prank Dave and his friends pulled a few nights back at Ray's house after the ump made a call that cost the boys a big game. Caught red-handed at gunpoint, Dave agrees to repair the damage and unwittingly also signs on to be Ray's only friend. Moments before, the older man had invited Dave in to make him a proposition. Dave didn't like the sound of that, and now the kid is squirming at what he thinks Ray may ask him to do to square the debt, if the old guy would only cut to the chase. 

"I'm 57, that makes me three times you. And I've got my high school reunion. Do you have any idea why people go to high school reunions?"

"To see their old friends?"

"No, to tally up who they're beating. They can't help it, they just got to find out who's worse off than they are. It sucks, doesn't it?"


Director James Ponsoldt, a young North Georgia native, grew up in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. His mom was a hospice nurse, which gave him a front-row seat to the spectacle of older men succumbing to the ravages of both the epidemic and its accompanying depression. He has fashioned a distinctly offbeat platonic male love story between two men who, against all odds, find themselves more fully alive in each other's company. Ray, the survivor of a bitter divorce that cost him a wife and a son, and Dave, whose mother ran away a few years back and whose severely depressed dad (Timothy Hutton) can barely make it to the breakfast table, decide to attend Ray's 40th high school reunion as father and son. By the time the event rolls around, both men are starting to enjoy the ruse for real.

Ponsoldt, who shares a cinematographer (Tim Orr) and a penchant for slow pans over a strangely lovely junkyard landscape with fellow Southerner David Gordon Green (George Washington, Undertow ), gets a slow, simmering duet of male bonding between the old bear Nolte — at times you have to listen really hard to comprehend the actor's gravelly utterances — and the cheeky cub Morgan — he was tartly funny as Rory Culkin's protective older brother in the teen revenge drama Mean Creek.

Ponsoldt has a very droll sense humor that his leads put to good advantage. A highlight is a side trip to a hospital Alzheimer's ward, where Ray's memory-challenged dad ignores his son in favor of doting on his pretend "grandson."

Nolte has carved a small art-form out of playing second-chance father figures in a series of broken-family dramas like Clean and The Beautiful Country . The veteran he-man, who first caught our eye as the emotionally stricken Vietnam Vet dealing with his drug-dealing buddy's duplicity in Who'll Stop the Rain, knows how to manipulate the fear he can inspire. His rogue cop in Sydney Lumet's incendiary portrait of big-city corruption Q&A was far scarier than any of Mel Gibson's bloodthirsty maniacs. This makes the discovery of his inner cuddle-bear both revelatory and strangely satisfying.

Trevor Morgan is one of those prodigy thespians who has learned the actor's art of reacting. He becomes the perfect straight man for Nolte's acerbic life lessons. At one point, the two are just sitting on Ray's back porch taking in the stars. Ray wishes the night would never end, and so do we.

Ponsoldt uses the film-within-a-film device of having Ray video letters to his estranged son, one of which becomes an odd kind of grace note to his new one. The film ends on a heart-stopping note that spells out the title's obscure baseball slang. Ponsoldt's central metaphor is for a perplexing male relationship that's a lot harder to call than a ball that cuts just off the corner of the plate, and can decide a life well beyond the game.