'Trouble With the Curve': Eastwood, Adams Are Pitch-Perfect
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Between his dense, dark, outré and perhaps for-auteurists-only 2011 biopic of J. Edgar Hoover (which was admired, with qualifications, by this auteurist) and a recent somewhat eccentric public appearance, there have been some doubts raised in certain cultural and critical corners as to whether actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood can continue to deliver in late innings, if you'll pardon the phrasing. Well, Eastwood did not direct the new film he co-stars in, "Trouble With the Curve." But the creative energy he puts both in front of the camera and behind it (he's one of the film's producers, and the director is first-timer Robert Lorenz, who's served as the assistant director and then producer on scads of recent-vintage Eastwoods) strongly suggests, if I might beat this metaphor into the ground, that nobody should think about sending him to the showers yet.
Written by actor-turned-screenwriter Randy Brown, "Trouble With the Curve" begins with Eastwood's character, Gus, having a pretty vivid horse-driven nightmare, which scans kind of odd because Gus is a baseball scout. He's a baseball scout whose place with the Atlanta Braves is being deliberately eroded by a hotshot moneyball-metrics type (played with supreme braying arrogance by Matthew Lillard) who wants to massacre everyone in his way to becoming GM. Gus is pretty old-school: He gets his data from hard print and from actually traveling to high schools and minor league games. He's never even opened a computer, apparently. Now Gus may be crusty, but that's very crusty: In this day and age, that's like making a movie about a symphony conductor who feels threatened by this new instrument, the synthesizer. However, Gus' improbable Luddite cussedness does save this movie from what would have almost surely been some inevitably unfunny old-man-learns-to-use-a-laptop gags. And in any event, Gus has got bigger issues: He has to travel to North Carolina to check on a promising high schooler who could be a No. 1 draft pick, and he's just learned he's got macular degeneration, which, you know, makes it hard to see the kind of stuff a potential No. 1 draft pick has got.
Gus is a widower, and he still visits his wife's grave and croaks out a chorus of "You Are My Sunshine" to it. I have heard tell that certain reviewers find this "sappy," and I have to wonder, if they're involved in a marriage or some other such type of relationship, just what their mutual musical terms of endearment might be? "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta F' Wit"? But I digress. Gus has an adult daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), a no-life-having hotshot lawyer on a fast track to partner who, in a pretty interesting indication of her character, offers almost no resistance when a worried colleague of Gus', Pete (John Goodman), twists her arm into piggybacking on the old man's road trip, even though it's in the middle of a make-or-break case. While Eastwood here does not play a man of violence from either side of the law, or someone bearing the trauma of battle (and it is, in fact, nice to see the grizzled fella playing, in Philip Larkin's phrase, "one of those old-type natural fouled-up guys"), Gus has his issues, and Mickey's got some of her own, and on this trip she's determined to talk about them. Bringing some pepper to the fraught father-daughter dynamic is Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), a one-time pitching tyro who blew out his arm and is now scouting for the Red Sox and hoping to make it in broadcasting. And he of course has eyes for the gorgeous, feisty Mickey, who is a regular baseball encyclopedia in the bargain.
The movie offers up an interesting parallel of the type that you don't see in too many contemporary pictures (chalk it up to the old reliable Eastwood classicism, I'd say): the story of the young baseball player Gus and Johnny are in North Carolina to check out, an unpleasant bombastic chubster named Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), who bids fair to become the Lonesome Rhodes of baseball if he makes it to the majors. This story is pretty satisfying in itself, with its emphasis on the notion that there are some things that mere recorded stats can't quantify. The movie manages to actually make the viewer feel the romantic idea that there are some things about the game that you can't map out, that are strictly feel. And that that feel is the most important thing there is. And for all that, Gus can't explain his own feelings to his daughter.
The Eastwood/Adams interplay is absolutely great, laugh-out-loud funny a lot of the time and quietly moving when it needs to be. Timberlake, too, is incredibly winning, bringing a relaxed charm and an inborn sanity to a guy who has seen all his dreams go down in flames and is still making the best of things. The movie's not perfect. Despite the careful groundwork laid on its behalf, the dramatic contrivance by which the title condition is given its most literal demonstration is simultaneously far-fetched and pat. However, in its way it's also deeply, deeply satisfying, and by this point in the movie, if you're in for a penny with this film, you're likely to be in for a pound.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.