Former major league fireball pitcher turned scout for the Boston Red Sox, Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), and his mentor, Atlanta Braves scout Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood), wait for Gus’ lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to realize true happiness isn’t to be found in a relationship with her cell phone in the anti-mobile device, pro-baseball movie Trouble With the Curve.
Sorry. I've got to do this. We're talking baseball here, after all.
Trouble With the Curve serves itself up 80 mph fastballs thrown right down the center of the plate then sprays the field with bloop singles, slow rollers that somehow scoot past the shortstop, lazy flies the wind carries over the outfielders’ heads, and a few sharply hit singles to deep right that it manages to stretch into doubles. Runs score, but there's a reason they call this small ball.
That's it. I'm better now.
So...I liked it. I had a good time. It's not great or even close to great. It's sentimental. It's predictable. Its attitude towards baseball is so nostalgic that the characters might as well enter and exit through a cornfield, and even so it's not smart about the game or the business behind the game. It tries too hard to make us root for its main characters, as if anybody's ever going to root against Clint. It's a comedy about relatively ordinary people who have interesting jobs but the fate of the world doesn't depend on their doing those jobs, which shouldn't matter, but the script doesn't trust us to care so the stakes are raised to a soap opera level of emotional manipulation.
It's not enough that Gus Lobel, the aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves played by Clint Eastwood, has to prove he can still do his job despite failing eyesight. He has to prove it by making the most important decision he's been called on to make in the last twenty years of his long and storied career with the future of the ballclub depending on him getting it right. It's not enough that his lawyer daughter Mickey has to take a week off from work at an inconvenient time to take care of him. She has to be in the middle of the biggest case of her budding career and on the brink of making partner. It's not enough that father and daughter aren't getting along lately because old age is getting to Gus, making him cranky, selfish, and unpredictable or that Mickey's been so caught up in her work that she hasn't been making time to visit her lonely and frightened old man. It has to be that she's been fighting for his attention, affection, and approval since her mother died twenty-seven years ago, breaking Gus' heart for all time and causing him to withdraw into himself and pull away from Mickey out of fear of losing her too and this might be their last chance to reconcile and put things right between them but it will depend on whether he can make that big decision and how she handles that big case.
Then there's the superfluous love interest whose main purpose is to give Amy Adams someone to play off of who's under sixty years old in the person of Justin Timberlake but who the script wants us to believe is Mickey's one last chance to find true love.
Wisely, director Robert Lorenz downplays the melodrama and keeps the focus on what’s realistic or at least more realistic. He lets the story unfold at an easy-going pace and has his actors playing it low key as if it’s all just another day in the life. And he’s well-aware that the audience didn’t come to admire his flashy direction or even for the story.
We’re here to see Clint.
One of the most admirable things about Eastwood’s performance is the lack of vanity. It goes beyond his willingness to let his age show. He plays Gus as an old man. Not a man getting old. Old. Old and being taken apart by old by old age.
Generally, he avoids the pathos inherent in watching a once vigorous hero now grown tired and frail and goes for self-deprecating humor. I loved the scowl and the angry look around when he puts in his hearing aid as if the first thing he's expecting to hear is some wiseass punk making fun of him, although the only thing anyone's going to find odd is that look and nobody but Gus himself thinks there's anything shameful about an old man needing a hearing aid, and he follows that up with an embarrassed frown as he realizes that. He has a different and more vulnerable but just as amusing way of putting on his glasses---alert, nervous, tense, and ready to jump, as if the first thing he expects to see is a hard hit foul ball already inches away from his face.
But Eastwood shows us Gus’ fear too. And his rage. And his growing self-disgust.
Gus is afraid of dying, of course, but that’s still well down the line, or so he’s probably assuring himself. Right now what he’s afraid of is getting hurt, physically and psychically. It’s bad enough that he’s tripping over things and bumping into them and that he has trouble backing his car out of the garage. He’s more and more reluctant to leave the house because he’s afraid he’ll humiliate himself in large and small ways. He’s foggy about things he used to pride himself on seeing clearly. He’s easily disoriented. He hates the probability that he’ll be having more and more senior moments, but he’s genuinely terrified those moments are the beginnings of something worse to come. And he can’t stand the grumpy, mean, and withdrawn old coot he sees himself turning into. He’s very close to wishing for it all to just be over and done with.
It’s a lovely, sad, and frightening performance. It would be depressing, if Trouble With the Curve wasn’t a comedy and a sentimental one, at that.
We can count on relief being just one tender moment away.
Gus Lobel appears to be a man hopelessly stuck in the past. He drives a vintage Mustang. When he visits his wife’s grave, he brings her a picnic lunch with beer and talks to her as if she’s right there with him. He refuses to use a computer, even to read newspapers online. Dead tree editions from all over the country, presumably mailed to him, are stacking up on his kitchen table. This means his information about what prospects are doing in their games is always days and even weeks out of date, a problem for a baseball scout in this day and age, and a real unlikelihood. Forget the movie Moneyball, which suggests no one in baseball learned how to use a spreadsheet before Billy Beane showed them how in 2001. Computers have been a regular scouting and coaching tool for at least twenty-five years. Davey Johnson, now managing the Washington Nationals into the playoffs, was using them back in his playing days with the Baltimore Orioles in the 1960s. Gus would have gotten used to using one a long time ago, at least to read the sports pages and send email. It would have been good if we’d been given clues that Gus wasn’t stuck in the past but had retreated into it, better if there were signs that Gus had just quit trying to keep up with the times---an unused DVR, a desktop with a dialup internet connection, a very unsmart phone dating from 2003. Instead he seems to be a cliche, the man from a simpler time still doing it the good old fashioned way. Except that Gus' prime would have been the 60s,70s, and 80s, hardly simpler times but also times when the business of baseball changed radically. If Gus was the type to be left behind, he'd have been left behind back then.
What Gus is, though, is a symbol or rather his refusal to rely on a computer is symbolic.
Defending the way he’s been doing his job, Gus says the kinds of things about character, heart, the five tools, and the intangibles that are made to sound ridiculous when they’re spouted by the scouts in Moneyball. They don’t sound ridiculous here---or as ridiculous---because Gus isn’t really talking about baseball or computers.
Trouble With the Curve isn’t about baseball, really. It’s about what it takes to be human and happy, which is a personal and physical connection with other people.
In a movie not over-long on irony, the ironic thing for Gus is that the good he symbolizes, our need to be involved in each other’s lives, is what he’s in the process of rejecting. He doesn’t need a computer to put between himself and companionship. He has his front door.
His tragedy is that he has taught his daughter to keep other people at a safe, impersonal, and manageable distance too. (Her smart phone is the too pat symbol of this accelerating tendency.) So here we have a movie about two people withdrawing from life who have pretty much no one left to turn to but each other pushing each other away.
Mickey---she’s named after Mickey Mantle, one of Gus’ favorite ballplayers of all time. Considering the organization he works for, she’s lucky she’s not named Hank.---is played by Amy Adams and if anybody can make us root against Clint it’s her. What decent-hearted father would push away such a bright, spunky, cutie pie of a daughter determined to love him in spite of himself? Mickey is a practical-minded person, a born problem-solver, but in her father she’s been presented with a problem she can’t solve because it has no practical solution. She’s a hard-charging careerist, which in a Hollywood movie is usually something that needs to be fixed. You’re supposed to put family ahead of your job, if you’re truly a good person. But Adams makes us see that Mickey is a responsible adult who happens to have other responsibilities besides looking after Gus, responsibilities to her firm, to her clients, and to herself. Adams puts us on Mickey’s side without any self-righteousness or special pleading. It’s very clear that she wants to do right by Gus but she’s correct in thinking he should also do right by her and that he's being irresponsible by forcing her to choose between him and her other responsibilities and what makes it worse is that he’s pushing her to make the choice she least wants to make, her job over him and herself. No wonder she’s mad at him. She makes us mad at him too.
A great thing about Clint Eastwood is how generous he’s always been towards his co-stars and supporting players. He’s glad to to step back and let them have the screen. He regularly disappears from Trouble With the Curve to let Adams have the movie to herself and Adams and Timberlake take it over together for long stretches of time. And in his scenes with the old character actors who play Gus’ cronies and friendly rival scouts, he’s content to sit quietly reacting while they’re having fun with the best lines and jokes.
Those old character actors---Chelcie Ross, Raymond Anthony Thomas, and Ed Lauter---and the ones who play the partners at Mickey’s law firm---George Wyner, Bob Gunton, and Jack Gilpin---are, taken together, one of Trouble With the Curve’s saving graces. But Timberlake is an amiable and enlivening presence, although I didn’t buy him as a former major league pitcher---a singles-hitting utility infielder up once or twice up from the minors for a cup of coffee, maybe. John Goodman is warm and welcome company. Robert Patrick, as the Braves’ general manager, has very few lines but his glowering speaks eloquently---here’s an extremely smart guy taking in everything you say and even more than you know you’re saying and wondering not all that patiently when you’re going to get around to telling him something he hasn’t already figured out ahead of you. And as Gus’ nemesis in the Braves’ home office, a computer-dependent super-striver with a lizard grin who seems to resent and look down on everyone on the general principle that they are not him, Matthew Lillard continues to develop a type he introduced in The Descendents, the smug, self-satisfied, too smart for his own good over-achiever who thinks his abilities and successes entitle him to your affection and approval even when he’s deliberately acting like a jerk.
Like I said. Not great. And not even really a baseball movie. But it’s got heart. It’s got character. If it doesn’t have all five tools, it’s got enough of the intangibles.
And, if he’s not kidding us, it’s Clint’s last acting job, and he’s finishing up with grace.
Most of the baseball that gets played in Trouble With the Curve gets played on fields in North Carolina and I’m told by Twitter phenom Teresa Kopec, who hails from that neck of the woods, that the movie gets the look and the feel and character of the area just right.
Extra Innings: Clint Eastwood makes my day.
Trouble With the Curve, directed by Robert Lorenz, screenplay by Randy Brown, starring Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Robert Patrick, and Matthew Lillard. Now in theaters.