Trouble With the Curve

The old pro, in an acting-only gig, scores another hit up the middle.

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 PG-13 version of his ornery coot in Gran Torino, Eastwood is vastly entertaining as an old-fashioned scout who disdains computers and statistics in favor of time-tested instincts. Making his directorial debut, Eastwood's longtime producer Robert 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 resentment. The Warner Bros. release looks to score well among Eastwood's bedrock Middle American fans, a great majority of whom likely were unfazed by his co-starring role at the Republican National Convention in August.

As in Torino four years ago, Eastwood does not hesitate to spotlight the debilitations of old age, doing so right off the bat as his Gus Lobel patiently coaxes out a morning piss, struggles with vision problems and stumbles into a coffee table. A legendary baseball scout responsible for discovering major stars, Gus is one of the last cigar-chompers, a guy who relies on what he sees, hears and intuits but, with only three months left on his contract with the Atlanta Braves, "may be ready for pasture." Anyone who has seen Moneyball will know on which side of the table he sits.

His only kid, the conspicuously named Mickey (Amy Adams), is a 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 troll the minors for talent, Mickey agrees to accompany her dad through Southern backwaters on what could be his final swing only after her old man's pal (John Goodman) talks her into it.

Despite constant arguments with her dad, good sense and some interesting developments keep Mickey 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 Boston Red Sox scout, starts hound-dogging her. She has great baseball sense herself, and alongside Gus, she evaluates the season's top prospect, Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a beefy slugger who hits it out of the park nearly every time up to the plate.

In a modest, appealing way, Curve is another in the line of last-stand-of-the-old-timers movies, which might include Torino, Space Cowboys and In the Line of Fire -- with Eastwood as actor and sometimes director -- in which experience, intuition and character carry the day against numbers, technology and other newfangled developments.

Although still in the minors, the outsize 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 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 having worked 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 of Malpaso. This is a handsomely directed film; there's a nice crispness to the pacing and images as Lorenz has had house cinematographer Tom Stern shift from his recent darker look to a brighter palette, which suits the vibrant characters and settings.

Adams scores as a career woman who discovers new horizons by breaking her routine. Timberlake is energetic but too puppy-doggish as her eager suitor; given Johnny's background as a failed major leaguer, shades of regret and disappointment would have deepened the 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 hardnosed GM) are hardly tested but lend weight to the supporting cast.

Of course, the show belongs to Eastwood. In only his third acting gig in a decade, the star plays an old crank and provokes laughs with his blunt assessments and pissed-off comments.

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 able to see 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 melancholic undercurrent, but the result is satisfying in an old-fashioned way, which also might be part of the point.

Opens: Sept. 21 (Warner Bros.)
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Director: Robert Lorenz Rated PG-13, 111 minutes