One of the odd things about Clint Eastwood’s new baseball drama, “Trouble With the Curve,” is how it aims to spite last year’s much superior baseball drama “Moneyball.”
The fictional “Curve” wants to repudiate the “sabermetrics” preached in the fact-based “Moneyball.” A smug young Atlanta Braves talent scout played by Matthew Lillard is sneered at because he wants to recruit players based on statistics culled via computer.
This prompts Gus Lobel, the organization’s senior scout played by Eastwood (emphasis on “senior”), to grouse, “Anybody who uses a computer to scout players doesn’t know a damn thing about this game.” He then chuckles and cracks a joke about “the Interwebs.” What’s strange about this episode is that everyone reacts to Lillard’s character as if he were the first person in the history of major league baseball to bring a laptop to a meeting.
This attitude may have been authentic in the 1980s or perhaps the early 1990s, but not in the 21st century. Yet it reflects a cognitive dissonance that runs deep in the film. It wants to take place 30 or 40 years ago, but the plot requires the existence of iPhones.
As far as Gus the grumpy old Luddite is concerned, a scout needs to rely on only his eyes to recruit quality talent. The (supposed) dramatic crux of the story is that Gus’ eyesight is failing. He has developed macular degeneration, a condition that causes blind spots in your vision. For Gus, that blind spot obscures home plate, so he is unable to evaluate a batter’s swing.
Naturally, this happens just as Gus is sent on a critical trip to scout a hotshot hitter burning up the North Carolina bush leagues. He is too proud to ask his estranged, baseball-savvy daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), for help, so his boss, Pete (John Goodman), asks her.
Even though Mickey’s relationship with Gus can be charitably described as bitter, and even though she is a lawyer who has just started work on a major case that could finally make her a partner in her firm, she takes the trip to North Carolina. That John Goodman is so sincere, nobody can say no to him.
Because “Curve” takes place on the fringes of the major leagues, it avoids many baseball movie clichés. Sure, director Robert Lorenz resorts to a slow-motion shot during the climax, but it occurs not during the final game of the World Series, but during – no kidding – batting practice.
However, “Curve” embraces the clichés of several other genres, principally the “troubled parent-child” story, and also the romantic comedy. In the bleachers, in the bars and in the diners of rural North Carolina, Gus and Mickey resume ancient arguments. Mickey wants to know why her widowed father abandoned her when she was 13. Gus wants her to stop asking those questions because children shouldn’t talk that way to their parents, especially an angry cuss like him. Turns out, of course, that the reason Gus sent Mickey to live with relatives is a Terrible Secret Buried in the Past that is revealed gradually through flashbacks.
The romantic comedy stuff clicks in after the arrival of Justin Timberlake as a junior scout for the Boston Red Sox. He considers Gus a mentor, but Mickey catches his eye. He’s happy-go-lucky, and she’s tightly wound. You know the drill.
Timberlake’s character never fits comfortably within the story – he may have been added after the script’s third or fourth draft to give Adams a romantic interest – but his presence is welcome anyway. Timberlake is a gregarious performer who lightens up and brings spontaneity to an otherwise leaden and predictable story. He has a gift for throwaway lines, and he scores with a terrific Kardashian joke that sounds like an ad lib.
Adams and Timberlake do share chemistry. With luck they will be paired again in a better film.
As with most of the recent films he stars in, Eastwood lives in a vanishing America. He drives a classic Mustang. He stays in a dilapidated roadside inn instead of a Motel 6. He and his scout buddies eat in local diners instead of a Denny’s and drink in honky-tonk bars instead of an Applebee’s. He tells his daughter to marry a husband who will be a good provider.
Unlike most of his recent films, Eastwood did not direct this one. This is the first time Eastwood hasn’t directed himself since 1993’s “In the Line of Fire.” “Curve” helmer Lorenz, making his debut as a feature director, is Eastwood’s longtime protégé. The native of Chicago’s northwest suburbs has served as assistant director or producer on all of Eastwood’s films since the mid-1990s and is production chief of Eastwood’s company, Malpaso. Chances are, Lorenz’s filmmaking vision doesn’t differ radically from his mentor’s.
The knock against Eastwood in this “Dirty Harry”/“Outlaw Josie Wales”/“The Gauntlet” period is that he gave the same performance in every film. That criticism wasn’t entirely fair, but his performance in “Curve” is awfully similar to his performance in “Gran Torino.” Again he plays an elderly loner raging against his advancing age and his own children. And again, Eastwood’s ursine grunts and growls are more comic than intended.
But the true trouble here is with the script, credited to newcomer Randy Brown. This is an amateurish screenplay that employs the rookie mistake of telling instead of showing. For two characters who don’t talk to each other, Gus and Mickey expend an awful lot of dialogue saying they don’t talk to each other.
Characters state the themes or their emotions, and repeat themselves 10 seconds later. During the opening act, Goodman’s character keeps on saying that Gus may be the greatest scout ever, then tells him, “I’ll always go to bat for you,” after ably demonstrating he will always go to bat for him.
And though we are constantly told Gus’ macular degeneration could end his career, we never witness an example of how it impedes his ability to scout players or how Mickey’s help is actually necessary – which is the whole point of the story! Yes, his vision problem causes him to wreck his car and trip over furniture, but it doesn’t seem to affect his job.
Brown wraps it all up in a climax where contrivances, coincidences and conveniences – not to mention delicious opportunities for payback – come out of left field. Everyone grins as if “Trouble With the Curve” has hit a triumphant home run, but in reality it reaches the plate after a series of errors.
“Trouble With the Curve”
Rated PG-13 for language, sexual references, some thematic material and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Who’s in it: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
What’s it about: When aging baseball scout Eastwood’s eyesight begins to fail, he and estranged daughter Adams reluctantly team up on a recruiting trip so he can check out a hot batting prospect.