Movie Review: Little League fan takes bets until he’s “All Square”

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What kind of lowlife would bet on Little League baseball games?

Not the Little League World Series. Surely Vegas has action on that. I’m talking local sandlot ball, small town, setting “the line” and all that?

If you’ve seen any movies about the kids’ version of America’s Pastime, your first thought would be “Buttermaker,” the drunken kid-hating ex-ballplayer and very bad influence on “The Bad News Bears.”

But it takes a special kind of lowlife to think of the idea, set the line and make book on Little League games in a town where everybody knows everybody else.

That’ John Zbikowswki, “Zibs,” the small time bookie in suburban Baltimore who’s just trying to get “All Square.” 

“All Square” is a surprising, sentimental without sentimentality. cynical but with surprising dollops of heart, conventional in how it drifts on past its climax, but managing twists all along the way.

Michael Kelly of “House of Cards” lacks the natural, nasty crackle that Walter Matthau and Billy Bob Thornton brought to the various “Bad News Bears” movies. So he makes Zibs a loser without the “lovable” part, a one-time big league prospect sentenced, for life, to making book where he grew up, in Dundalk, looking after his inform dad (the great Harris Yulin), basically taking over the old man’s bookmaking business.

He narrates his story like a seen-it-all tough guy, defining “the line” and “the vig” and the bookie/gambler “code of honor.”

But he’s not tough. He rides up on one “deadbeat” (Tom Everett Scott) who owes him cash, and ends up helping him move a new curved-screen TV into the guy’s house. Zibs dodges confrontations.

Breaking in later is his play. It’s how he ended up with one deadbeat’s dog.

He figures he’s a genius for finding one thing that will get everybody in town who owes him money to pay him back — taking bets on their kids’ baseball games. It’s one place the lonely sports bookie doesn’t have to compete with Internet gambling.

“How’d I see it, when nobody else did?”

Here’s how. There’s this blowsy classmate (Pamela Adlon, bringing her high-mileage edge) who takes him from “Buy me a drink” to she’s not there when he wakes up in the morning in her bed.

There’s a kid watching TV. Brian (Jesse Ray Sheps) has nobody taking care of him during the day, and Zibs has no idea what he promised to do the day before. So he drags him around for ride along and a “get even/”All Square” break in.

The boy is so desperate for male attention that he invites this stragner, this foul-mouthed chain-smoker who never met a razor he liked, to see him pitch.

Fox? Welcome to the henhouse.

Director John Hyams — yeah, he’s Peter Hyams’ son — doesn’t have comedy chops. He’s produced TV shows like “NYPD Blue” and directed “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.” What he knows is milieu, and that’s where “All Square” lives.

It’s the bars where laid-off, burnt-out, “degenerate gamblers” hang out, the working class neighborhoods where everybody knows everybody and nobody has alarm systems, the personal connections that drift in and out of favor for decades because everybody’s stuck here. Adlon’s Debbie and Zibs hooked up in high school. Why not again?

The comp here is “Tree’s Lounge,” with Kelly’s performance reminiscent of Steve Buscemi’s limited, unschooled and amoral man trapped in the world he was born into. Zibs is full of worldwise (bad) advice for the bullied Brian, buying the kid his first beer, teaching him about fighting back.

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“What are you afraid of?”

“Getting my teeth knocked out.”

“They’re baby teeth. They come back. It’s like playing with house money.”

The bully is 12 years old, “so how hard can punch, anyway?” Don’t worry about his parents calling the cops because “you’re under 18.”

Ironically, it’s advice Zibs himself never took. Another guy owes him money, but Zibs is the one who gets the black eye. He collects his own markers, and a hurt look (He managed that on “House of Cards,” too.) is no incentive for most guys to settle up.

But he knows sports gambling, and figures out Little League in a heartbeat.

“Big kids beat up little kids,” so bet on the team with the bulkiest, tallest pitchers and hitters. “And if his dad is coaching, he’s probably good…He’s learning fundamentals.”

The “Let it Ride” setting includes a bartender, Beaches (Yeardley Smith of “The Simpsons”) who acts as his banker and secretary, and barfly/gambler pals who include Isaiah Whitlock, Jr.

Josh Lucas is the always-smiling, glad-handing clean-cut league commissioner, the fellow who notices a lot of drunks and others with no kids in the games showing up with a KEEN interest in the final score. The commissioner is running for city council.

“You should vote for me.”

“I don’t vote. ”

“Everybody should vote. ”

“You convinced me.”

The funny stuff isn’t sidesplitting, it’s rye-flavored wry. The plot drifts into melodramatic twists as well as the occasional clever one.

I didn’t expect to like it, and Timothy Brady’s script never quite hits that “sleeper” sweet spot. But “All Square” rides its spot-on casting, sharply defined performances and beer-stained sense of place well past second base, if not all the way home.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity, under-age drinking, gambling

Cast: Michael Kelly, Jesse Ray Sheps, Pamela Adlon, Josh Lucas, Tom Everett Scott, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., Yeardley Smith

Credits:Directed by John Hyams, script by Timothy Brady A Vertical release.

Running time: 1:33

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