Trouble with the Curve (**)

This old-fashioned father-daughter story feels like an old chestnut from the world of theater, even though it has no roots in the stage. It’s the sort of film that used to be called “heartwarming” and “moving” or the type of movie that audiences flocked to see hoping for something that allowed them a good cry. Today, because we have seen so many of these sort of films, it looks clichéd and, as I have stated, very old-fashioned.

The picture marks the first time Clint Eastwood has acted in a film directed by another since In the Line of Fire (1993) which was helmed by Wolfgang Peterson. This time the director is one of Eastwood’s own, a man who has worked with him for many years, Robert Lorenz, and I wonder, well…Why? Why would Eastwood need a director at this point in his career to give a performance he has given before and that frankly, he could have phoned in? His reputation as a filmmaker is impeccable, he shoots fast and cheap, actors revere him and I struggle with the fact I cannot see another director guiding him!! Surely Lorenz would be wondering all the time what Eastwood was thinking? How was he doing? Was he doing a good job?

Well, whatever, Lorenz is credited as the director so for all intents and purpose he is the director.
Eastwood portrays Gus, a minor league baseball scout for the bigs, looking for the next major talent usually in the southern states. Once the best scout in the business, age has caught up to Gus and he now struggles to do his job. He can still spot talent, but not as easily as he used to do it. Medical issues plague him and though he is not at death’s door, everyone around him has begun to realize he will not be around forever. One aspect of his life that brings him heartache is the relationship between he and his daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams) a high-powered lawyer who is about to make a major career move in becoming partner. A tomboy who was good at sports, she is still angry at her father for dumping her into the homes of relatives after the death of her mother so he could continue working. She resents him for it, barely conceals her anger towards him, and when talked into going on a road trip with him, all they do is bicker which results in her storming away and he telling her to go home. They antagonize one another without even knowing the other is doing it, so ingrained is their animosity and neither cannot let go of old hurts.

Yet while on the road, they will do what all characters in this sort of film happen to do, they see through the other, look deep into the other and find the person they always knew was there. People around them watch it happening and smile a lot, especially Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake) a onetime hotshot major leaguer who got hurt and is now a scout like Gus, and develops a shine to Mickey. He sees something else too, a very keen eye for talent just like her father. She can spot the winners from the wannabes with absolute ease, and is no slouch in playing the game. Like her father she loves baseball, always has, but stopped loving it to get back at her father, trying to make him see she feels he chose the game over his daughter.

Trouble with the Curve is corny, predictable, warm (as we expect) and often quite winning. The movie is the sort of film junket whore film critics, the ones that quote for every film calling it the best of the year would call a “home run” knowing being clever assures them a spot in the ads. It is a thoroughly entertaining film with good performances from the leads, though Eastwood was redundant and strong support from all but one of the major secondary characters.

Let’s start with Justin Timberlake, who I really like as an actor and believe he is the real deal. In The Social Network (2010) he was brilliant with just the right amount of charm and sleaze, fear and paranoia. It was a brilliant performance, one that made clear he was an outstanding actor but also a genuine movie star with charisma to burn. Not here. He tries too hard in Trouble with the Curve, like a puppy, trying to endear himself to Mickey and I think the audience. Never before has Timberlake gone the “too cute” path but he does here and it damages what could have been a nice performance.

John Goodman is as always reliable and strong, believable as a baseball man and Gus’s good buddy. I found myself wondering, what kind of film would we have received if Goodman played the Eastwood role? Certainly something very different and it would have given this fine character actor a lead he deserves.

Amy Adams is terrific as Mickey, giving a prickly, warm performance that ranks right up there with one of her best, though I think the Academy is more likely to honor her for The Master, which offers the actress a more challenging role than in this picture. She is terrific as Mickey, there is not a false note in her performance, and her work with Eastwood is superb, but their relationship is all too familiar, seen before, been there done that.

That about sums about Eastwood’s performance as Gus, which could be Walt transplanted from Gran Torino (2008) with a single major difference. Gus is still alive inside while Walt was not, he stopped living the moment his wife died. Gus has baseball, he has the hope he will resolve his issues with his daughter, he is refusing to stop living. That said,  many similarities between the two men, beginning with their cranky behavior, their nasty penchant for spitting out venom when they speak, and their bodies slowly breaking down, which more than anything just pisses them off. The love of baseball shines through in his performance, we understand how the smell of the diamond gets his blood pumping and the sound of leather and the bat connecting with the ball wake him up, as Eastwood beautifully conveys that. His best scenes are those with Adams, who does what Meryl Streep did in The Bridges of Madison County (1995) her challenging Eastwood, gives him something to work with.

The film is a paint by numbers sort of movie, we know where it is going at the beginning and once it gets going. The conclusion is exactly what we figured it would be, and Gus’ medical issues seem to fall out of the plot.  The whole thing is just terribly familiar, and frankly has been done much better before.