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Clint Eastwood’s first film as an actor for a director other than himself since In the Line of Fire in 1993, Trouble With the Curve is a corny, conventional and quite enjoyable father-daughter reconciliation story set mostly in the minor league baseball world of the South. Playing a sort of PG-13-rated version of his ornery coot in Gran Torino, Eastwood is vastly entertaining as an old-fashioned scout who disdains computers and fancy statistical charts in favor of his own time-tested instincts. Making his directorial debut, Eastwood’s longtime producer Rob Lorenz knows just how to pitch the story to take advantage of the humorous side of his star’s obstinate crankiness, and Amy Adams makes a good match as the career-driven daughter with festering resentments. The Warner Bros. release looks to score well with Eastwood’s bedrock Middle American fans, the great majority of whom likely were unfazed by Eastwood’s co-starring role at the recent Republican National Convention.
As in Gran Torino four years ago, Eastwood does not hesitate to spotlight the debilitations of old age — in fact doing so right off the bat as his Gus Lobel patiently coaxes out a morning piss, struggles with vision problems and stumbles banging into a coffee table at his modest home. A legendary baseball scout responsible for discovering some major stars in his day, Gus is one of the last of the cigar-chompers, a guy who relies on what he sees, hears and intuits but, with just three months left on his contract with the Atlanta Braves, “may be ready for pasture.” Anybody who’s seen Moneyball will know which side of the table he sits on.
His only kid, conspicuously named Mickey (Adams), is a high-powered young Atlanta lawyer on the verge of becoming a partner at her firm. Still stewing over having been palmed off on relatives when her mother died young so Gus could continued to troll the minors for talent, Mickey has commitment issues with men, and the last thing this workaholic could imagine is accompanying her dad through Southern backwaters on what could be his final swing. But her old man’s pal (John Goodman) talks her into it, suggesting that it could be a last chance to patch things up.
First-time screenwriter Randy Brown puts his players on base and then comes through with what feels like a solid hit through the infield that scores a couple of runs. When Mickey joins her dad in North Carolina, their nearly every exchange almost immediately turns into an argument that ends with her stomping out and him telling her to go home. But good sense and some interesting developments keep her around: A former recruit of Gus’, Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), who made it to the bigs, then threw his arm out and is now a Red Sox scout, starts hound-dogging Mickey. She has great baseball sense herself and, alongside Gus, evaluates the season’s top prospect, Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a beefy slugger who hits it out nearly every time he comes up to the plate.
Filming in a charming old minor league park and peppering the stands with veteran baseball guys provides nice echoes of the game the way it used to be, and it feels good when director Lorenz also brings his star back to the sort of working class settings — Southern honky tonks, pool halls, cheap motels, cut-rate sports facilities — where his characters used to spend a good deal of time. In a modest, appealing way, Trouble With the Curve is another last-stand-of-the-old-timers movie, which might include Gran Torino, Space Cowboys and In the Line of Fire, with Eastwood as actor and sometimes director, in which experience, intuition and character get to carry the day against technology, numbers and other newfangled developments.
Even though he’s still in the minors, the outsized Gentry amusingly carries on as if he already knows he’s the new century’s Babe Ruth, refusing to low-five his third base coach when he hits homers and boasting of glories to come. But despite his deteriorating vision, Gus has suspicions, as suggested by the film’s title, that Gentry has a fatal weakness. It’s a conviction he shares with Mickey, who herself contributes to her father’s cause in a surprising, if somewhat far-fetched, way.
Having begun with Eastwood as a second assistant director on The Bridges of Madison County in 1995 and working as a producer or executive producer on his films since 2002, Lorenz knows well his collaborator’s strengths as an actor and doesn’t stray far from the style and tone customary at Malpaso. This is a handsomely directed film; there’s a nice crispness to the pacing and images, as Lorenz keeps things moving briskly and has had house cinematographer Tom Stern move away from his recent darker, more subdued look to a brighter, fuller palette, which suits the vibrant characters and settings.
Adams scores as the career woman who’s a tomboy at heart and discovers some new horizons by breaking with her routine. Timberlake is energetic but too puppy-doggish as her eager suitor; given Johnny’s background as a failed would-be baseball player, some shades of regret and disappointment would have deepened characterization. Distinctive character actors such as Goodman, Matthew Lillard, playing a Braves scouting executive contemptuous of Gus’ antiquated ways, and Robert Patrick, as the team’s hard-nosed GM, are hardly tested but lend weight to the supporting cast.
But, of course, the show belongs to Eastwood. In just his third acting gig in a decade, the star has a role not dissimilar to the old crank he played to such great success in Gran Torino and provokes similar laughs with his blunt assessments and pissed-off comments. But despite living alone and his remoteness from his daughter, Gus Lobel is not retired but still engaged in life, carrying on with what he’s always done well despite the disparagement of young rivals and the obvious physical encroachments of age.
Still physically fit enough to pitch to his daughter for fun (Eastwood reveals himself to be a southpaw on the mound), Gus might be an anachronism, but — like the actor who plays him — he remains a force to contend with. And despite his hard-headedness, he’s also able to see that it’s never too late to open up to Mickey. His medical issues are unrealistically shoved aside at the end, which might have benefited from a melancholy undercurrent, but the result is satisfying in an old-fashioned way, which also might be part of the point.
Opens: Friday, Sept. 21 (Warner Bros.)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Robert Patrick, Matthew Lillard, Bob Gunton, George Wyner, Jack Gilpin, Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross, Ray Anthony Thomas, Joe Massingill, James Patrick Freetly
Director: Robert Lorenz
Screenwriter: Randy Brown
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Michele Weisler
Executive producer: Tim Moore
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: James J. Murakami
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editors: Gary D. Roach, Joel Cox
Music: Marco Beltrami
PG-13 rating, 110 minutes
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