`Frequency' fades out

--------------------------- Movie review

XX 1/2 "Frequency," with Dennis Quaid, Jim Caviezel, Andre Braugher, Noah Emmerich, Elizabeth Mitchell. Directed by Gregory Hoblit, from a screenplay by Toby Emmerich. 117 minutes. Several theaters. "PG-13" - for intense violence and disturbing images.


"Frequency," Gregory Hoblit's uneven time-travel thriller, features plenty of soft-focus, picture-perfect, father-and-son baseball scenes, an enormous amount of plot, and not quite enough of anything else.

Not to say it's a bad film; the middle section is thoroughly enjoyable, a lively amusement-park ride through the time-travel concept. But the beginning is clunky and the ending a rapid whoosh of activity that doesn't always make sense. And then there's all that baseball.

Let's be clear about this: I love baseball - really I do - and I even get a tad weepy every time "Field of Dreams" turns up on TNT. But Hoblit uses the sport to take the easy way out with his characters: Rather than suggesting a father-son relationship, in all its richness and complexity, he simply throws in a few sentimental scenes of said father and son playing a little baseball. It's shorthand. Unfortunately, it's also a cheat - excusable in a baseball movie, but a pointless slackening of pace in a thriller.

(Mother-daughter scenes, in contrast - not that there are any in this movie - generally feature a great deal of tearful accusation followed by hugging and perhaps lunch in a nice restaurant. This isn't any better, but at least it provides a little more variety.)

But what "Frequency" has in its favor is a thoroughly nifty plot, of which I won't reveal too much here. Suffice to say that young cop John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel, all dark-eyed intensity), in 1999, finds his late dad's old CB radio in a closet and hooks it up, only to find, much to his astonishment, that Dad himself (Dennis Quaid) is speaking to him through the CB, from the vantage point of 1969. By giving the old man instructions, John finds that he can alter his family's past - but altering the past alters the future, too, and makes things awfully complicated.

Hoblit, who showed more assurance in 1998's underrated "Fallen," takes a while to find his stride. Once we're firmly on the time-travel path, though, "Frequency" hums along quite nicely. When Quaid in 1969 burns a message into a wooden desk and Caviezel sees it, appearing letter by letter, on the same desk in 1999, the effect is shivery and note-perfect.

But the time-travel movie - especially when played straight - is a tricky little monster, and screenwriter Toby Emmerich seems to get a bit desperate toward the end. As everyone races to try to catch a murderer in both 1969 and 1999 (oh, I won't even try to explain it), things happen so fast that the rules of logic that the film has set up seem to be abandoned. For example: If somebody's dead in 1969, they're dead in 1999, right? So how can they be killed again?

All in all, the movie's not a bad attempt, but ultimately disappointing. Still, for a few moments in which it delivers on its undeniably cool premise - such as one when father and son warble a tune ("Take Me Out to the Ball Game," of course) to themselves, 30 years apart, simultaneously - "Frequency" is worth seeing.