`League' Takes Swing At Pleasing

XX 1/2 "A League of Their Own," with Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O'Donnell and Jon Lovitz. Directed by Penny Marshall, from a screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Opens today at Northgate Cinema, Crossroads Cinemas, Cinerama, SeaTac North, Alderwood Cinemas, Kent Cinemas, John Danz, Southcenter, Valley Six Drive-In and Everett Mall Cinema. "PG" - parental guidance suggested, for mature humor. --------------------------------------------------------------- Taken on its own bright but otherwise unambitious terms, "A League of Their Own," director Penny Marshall's enjoyably sappy take on women's baseball in the 1940s, is batting cleanup in a summer slump of almost-good movies.

After all, it's hard to resist a filmmaker who so sincerely aims to please. "Big" and "Awakenings" provide ample proof that Marshall can balance emotionally compelling material with humor and thoughtful direction (not to mention impressive box-office returns), but "A League of Their Own" represents a slight back step. With a soft-headed reliance on her established strengths, Marshall has barely skimmed the surface of a small but thematically rich slice of American history, avoiding anything that might have added depth to the story.

Marshall needn't have been so commercially cautious; "League" could have taken on fuller dimension without sacrificing the qualities that make it such fun to watch - a fact that only deepens the sense of a missed opportunity.

Granted, what's on the screen is a blast while it lasts. "Saturday Night Live" alum Jon Lovitz is a scene-stealer as the baseball scout who recruits hotshot catcher Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) from an Oregon farm-league softball team.

It's 1943: The wartime draft is draining men and commerce from minor- and major-league baseball, and the newly formed All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL) is holding tryouts at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Dottie won't go unless her kid sister Kit (Lori Petty), a pitcher envious of Dottie's playfield prowess, can come along.

Both sisters make the roster for the Rockford (Ill.) Peaches. Among their teammates are center-fielder "All-the-way" Mae Mordabito (Madonna, in a tailor-made role), Mae's feisty sidekick at third base Doris Murphy (Rosie O'Donnell), and a homely slugger named Marla (Megan Cavanaugh) who doesn't quite fit the league's short-skirted, charm-schooled, crowd-pleasing profile.

"A League of Their Own" is at its best when establishing its chaperoned ensemble, sharing gossip, marital woes and team sing-alongs in hotels and buses, or during a forbidden roadhouse romp (where Madonna dances up a delightful storm). Marshall also makes room for some dramatic highlights - particularly when one player loses her overseas husband to war - and a memorably brief moment when a black woman tosses a baseball with a fierce arm, knowing that only her color keeps her from being a first-class player (an injustice that isn't lost on the Rockford Peach who catches the ball).

Such moments are unfortunately rare. The Davis-Petty rivalry is lively but predictable, and Davis' dilemma - whether to choose baseball or domestic life with her returning soldier husband (Bill Pullman) - barely registers as a subplot despite their nicely underplayed reunion scene. Gradually, Marshall's background in sitcom-style humor takes priority.

Which brings us to Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan, the alcoholic former big-league star coerced into managing the Peaches to their first-season World Series showdown.

"League" wants you to laugh more than anything else, and Hanks makes sure that you will. He's got at least two scenes - one consisting of a side-splitting facial contortion - that are worth the price of admission. His curmudgeon-with-a-heart performance is a real charmer, but it, like Cavanaugh's character, is built up and then ultimately neglected.

As entertaining as "League" is, the story of the AAGPBL (which folded in 1954) deserved a more substantial treatment. Marshall is content to salute these pioneering women with a re-creation of their recent tribute reunion at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Depending on your tolerance for sentiment, this closing scene will either dampen your handkerchief or rot a crater in your sweet tooth.