Trouble With the Curve
Expectations are high for Clint Eastwood’s return to acting. Trouble With the Curve is his first time in front of the camera — though director Robert Lorenz is Eastwood’s long-time assistant director — since 2008’s Gran Torino, and his first time not also behind the camera since 1993’s In the Line of Fire. Seriously, I have friends who don’t even remember 1993. And expectations are especially high after his unconventional performance at last month’s Republican National Convention, which led to some speculation that the man is going senile. Well, it’s clear from this film that Eastwood is not, in fact, losing it, and there will be no more mention of the matter; if I can assess The Beaver on its merits I can sure as hell set Eastwood’s politics aside.
Gus Lobel (Eastwood) is a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves, and one of the best. But what with the rise of new analytic techniques, he’s starting to feel his age. Worse, as a few first-person shots make clear, he’s dealing with some pretty advanced macular degeneration. He keeps it a secret, but head of scouting Pete Klein (John Goodman) can tell something’s up.
It’s at Pete’s insistence that Gus’ daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), tags along on a scouting trip to the small towns of western North Carolina to follow a high school phenomenon (Joe Massingill) for a few games. For her part, she’s an aggressively career-minded lawyer whose stubborn determination — guess where she gets it — put her on track to be the youngest partner in her firm’s history. And, yes, she’s named after Mickey Mantle. The two aren’t close, and evidently they haven’t been for some time. Still, family is family.
Further complicating things, since we can’t bear to have a female lead without a love interest, is Johnny “Fireball” Flanagan (Justin Timberlake). Johnny was a rising star of a pitcher Gus once signed to the Braves, but he was traded to the Red Sox who proceeded to blow out his arm pushing him too hard, too fast. Now he’s acting as their scout, trying to make good enough to land a gig as an announcer. He helps the audience bridge the gap between Mickey and her father by taking a romantic interest in one and acting as a student of the other.
It’s a sweet enough story, delivered nicely, with no big surprises; nothing is coming out of left field on this one. Even the sudden change-up towards the end is signaled well in advance, but not so glaringly that it feels awkward. Eastwood is playing a character that fits him as comfortably as a well-broken-in glove. Adams steps up to the plate, as always. And Timberlake is naturally charming as he swings for the fences.
If there’s a complaint to be made with the film, it’s that the attitudes are too broad and simplistic, especially when it comes to the central rebuttal against the thesis of Moneyball. The computer-minded scouts are effete yuppies, wearing dress shirts and drinking in martini bars — a characterization echoed in the lawyers Mickey interacts with, including the one she’s hafheartedly dating. Real Men drink whiskey in dive bars with pool tables. They don’t run on treadmills; they get outdoors. They watch the game, not the statistics.
All of which feels really good on some visceral level, but fails to respond to the challenge of the Moneyball era. Even if we grant that there is some ineffable quality a scout can see in the eye of a young man down 0-for-4 that says whether he has it in him to come back for a fifth time, the statistics can tell how he actually has performed in those situations. Yes, there are nuances and rubrics that can fill in the gaps of insufficient data — how can you tell how a guy will hit a major-league curve if he’s never faced a major-league pitcher? — and on that count there will be a place for an experienced eye in the decision-making process. But as much as we might root for John Henry we know how it turns out.
As a movie, Trouble With the Curve is a pleasant enough diversion. But as a return salvo in the baseball wars it’s a bit of a fifty-eight-footer.
Worth It: yes.