Director: Robert Lorenz
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, Matthew Lillard, John Goodman, Robert Patrick, Scott Eastwood
Running Time: 111 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
When aging baseball scout Gus Lobel says a player looks good "on paper" you better believe he knows what he's talking about. No one has more paperwork since he refuses to rely on computers or even statistics to his job. But considering he's played by Clint Eastwood, you probably could have guessed that already. He's old school, as is the film's approach to sports recruiting. Trouble with the Curve could easily be his anti-Moneyball, if not for the fact that for the first time since 1993's In The Line of Fire, he's acting in a film he didn't actually direct. Taking over the reigns with mixed results is his longtime assistant director and producer Robert Lorenz, who puts his mentor front and center. And yet despite appearing in every scene, it still doesn't really feel like Eastwood's film. This is light, popcorn entertainment with the actor's performance playing as kind of a Grumpy Old Men version of his bitter, ornery Gran Torino character, minus the racial and ethnic slurs. It does some things well, and a few more wrong, but it's not exactly the disaster many have made it out to be, suffering more for its theatrical release coinciding with the actor's infamous Republican convention speech last November. Of course, that was blown way out of proportion by the media, undeserving of being remembered as anything other than a tiny blip on his storied career. He's earned that much, even if this effort still doesn't quite add up to much more than the sum of its parts. But if interviews implying that this could be his final acting appearance hold true, we can at least be grateful it's no Welcome To Mooseport.
With his contract up in three months, legendary Atlanta Braves' scout Gus refuses to see the handwriting on the wall. Now in his twilight years and with rapidly deteriorating eyesight, management may not extend his contract despite his best friend and boss Pete (John Goodman) doing everything he can to convince them otherwise. But Gus has a major, "can't miss" prospect to check out in North Carolina, and much to his displeasure, Pete convinces his workaholic lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to join him on the trip, which evolves into an extended therapy session for both. With Mickey distracted by a potential promotion to partner at work and still harboring resentment toward her dad for abandoning her as a child and Gus in full denial about his declining health, their few moments of bonding come from their shared love of baseball. While there, they run into the charismatic Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake) a former player Gus recruited who's now a scout for the Red Sox angling for a job in the broadcast booth. While scouting the kid he takes a romantic interest in Mickey but Gus has bigger problems to worry about. If he screws this up, he's done for good.
It's difficult to watch this without memories of 2011's vastly superior Moneyball lingering in the background. What's compelling about the comparison is that while both films focus heavily on major league baseball scouting, they take completely opposite approaches. Eastwood's Gus may as well be one of the old, out-of-touch veterans who were mocked by Brad Pitt's Billy Beane in so many of that picture's most effective scenes. There was no point in management actually "scouting" anyone anymore, as the key to the A's success came from the sabermetric system of running player stats through a computer. Here, computers are viewed as creating a culture of laziness in baseball management, screwing teams up by recruiting the wrong players and costing wise, grizzled veterans like Gus their office jobs. This is exemplified with Matthew Lillard's sleazy Braves scout, a character who rather heavy-handedly represents the supposedly clueless new guard. In other words, a one-dimensional moron who knows nothing about baseball and lets his computer program do the work. That's a bit of a stretch, as is the assertion that an aging well traveled blind man is preferable. The truth probably lies somewhere in between in terms of statistics and experience and a narrative exploring would have been far more interesting than the one we get. Fair or not, that manipulation kept me from completely sympathizing with Gus when we're clearly meant to. Also odd is what a slog the action is considering there's more of an emphasis on actual scouting and recruiting at games as opposed to just analyzing statistics, a task Moneyball somehow found a way to make extremely exciting.
It all has kind of a lazy Sunday afternoon TV movie feel about it, only coming alive when Justin Timberlake arrives to share the screen with Amy Adams and Eastwood. He's ideal for the part of a cocky, but good-hearted former player who's career was cut short. He just nails it, making you wonder why he wasn't the protagonist since he certainly feels like one in scenes opposite Adams, with whom he has surprisingly great chemistry. Too bad the pacing of the relationship feels off, as it seems to take about an hour of screen time for those sparks to go anywhere, and by the time they do, we've checked out. Adams basically carries the whole movie bringing a considerable amount of depth her ice princess character and the usually hackneyed storyline of a father-hating daughter carrying emotional baggage. Without spoiling too much, when we're finally given an explanation for the rift between the two, it's in a flashback scene meant to pack a dramatic wallop, but instead had me howling with laughter. It plays like a bizarre cross between Equus and Dirty Harry. But that we even got a brief moment of bad-ass, old school Eastwood is reason enough to celebrate since the rest of the way through it does kind of feel like he's on autopilot, at times almost sending up his own image as an actor and icon.
For all it does wrong, this gets one really important thing right. There's this seemingly throwaway moment toward the middle of the picture with the obnoxious (and boy he's obnoxious) player Gus and Johnny are scouting that's strangely memorable, its full repercussions figuring into the conclusion in a surprising way. The way it returns, much like everything else in the third act, is probably a bit too convenient, but the underlying message of talent hiding anywhere isn't. Of course, a few more happy (if not completely earned) resolutions are also shoehorned into an ending that clumsily juggles personal and professional trials, before tying them up nicely with a bow. Ironically, the film is strongest when dealing with the personal drama and weaker in the professional department, namely everything involving Mickey's work problems back home, resulting in annoying, undramatic scenes with Adams' face buried in her phone, texting non-stop. The attempt join everything together at the end comes off as well as it can given the circumstances, even as Lorenz faces limitations imposed on him by an overstuffed script. Despite its predictability and the fact it has nothing particularly important to say, Trouble With The Curve is still a breezy watch, as there are far worse ways to kill two hours, especially for Eastwood fans who will probably feel obligated to see it. And they should. Just as long as they don't expect anything special.