Think of Trouble With the Curve as Million Dollar Baby Lite. Again we have the cranky older man (Clint Eastwood, this time a baseball scout instead of a boxing trainer) dealing with a feisty, stubborn young woman (Amy Adams as Clint’s actual daughter instead of Hilary Swank’s virtual one), constantly grumbling and annoyed, but beneath it all willing to do anything for her–except this time, without all that messy violence and mercy-killing. Indeed, Trouble is so low-key and (until its wish-fulfillment last reel) inconclusive that you could easily mistake it for a Dramatic Competition film at Sundance, although that version would probably have had Jeff Bridges or Nick Nolte in the Eastwood role.
At age 82, it seems fair to talk about Eastwood’s career in terms of valedictory roles, and if Trouble turns out to be his final time before the cameras, it will be a less fitting finale than his last parts in 2008′s Gran Torino or 2004′s Baby–and that’s precisely because of the lack of bloodshed. Although Eastwood, especially as a director, has done very fine work in a variety of genres, he will forever be associated with his career’s saga of violence and its consequences, from the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s and the Dirty Harry series through the much more tortured, morally ambiguous Unforgiven, Mystic River and his Iwo Jima pair. It’s his great theme as a filmmaker, and its absence from Trouble is one of the reasons the movie feels a bit lightweight.
Eastwood didn’t direct Trouble (the first time he’s appeared for a director other than himself since In the Line of Fire 19 years ago), but he produced it, and the director is first-timer Robert Lorenz, who’s been an associate of Eastwood’s since The Bridges of Madison County. Lorenz’s work is very much in the Malpaso (Eastwood’s production company) house style, straightforward and unadorned to a fault. Based on the final product, it seems clear that Lorenz followed his boss’ template of minimal takes and sticking to a limited schedule and budget. Somewhat less happily, the script by newbie Randy Brown also feels like, in usual Malpaso style, it’s been shot pretty much as originally written, with little time spent on rewrites–even if it could have used some.
The story is very basic. Gus Lobell (Eastwood) is an aging scout for the Atlanta Braves. (In a rare bit of vanity from Eastwood, the subject of “early retirement” comes up at one point, a concept that’s hard to understand unless the Braves’ mandatory retirement age is 90.) Gus is trying, with increasing difficulty, to hide the fact that he’s losing his vision. Deep in denial, he sets out on the road to join the scouts following obnoxious high school player Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), reputedly the major leagues’ next great slugger. The only one who suspects Gus’ difficulties is old pal Pete Klein, who goes to Gus’ daughter Mickey (Adams) to ask her to help her old man. Mickey is a rising young lawyer poised for partnership who’s never forgiven Gus for abandoning her after her mother died, but she feels sufficient concern to join him on the road.
You can guess the rest. Mickey will gradually ease out of her legal suits and recapture her love of baseball, and while she and Gus will battle, eventually they’ll remember that they love each other. As a bonus, Mickey will finally meet a man who cares as much about baseball as she does, unlike the effete city boys she’s been dating. In this case it’s former pitcher Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), now also working as a scout, who has the bonus of being someone Gus can actually stand. Will Gus’ insistence that despite his impaired sight, he can actually hear what a great swing sounds like, prove him smarter than the evil Braves moneyball-ish executive (Matthew Lillard) who only believes in computers and wants to ignore all of Gus’ wisdom? Will Mickey find something better to do with her life than practicing big-firm law? Well, duh.
Trouble With the Curve is pleasantly predictable, although it goes over the top toward the end. Eastwood, as in his other recent acting roles (and, we’ve learned recently, in his politics), embraces his curmudgeon persona with gusto. Adams, whose Mickey is arguably more the movie’s protagonist than Gus, is spirited and charming, fully capable of holding her own with the great Clint, although the relatively airy material won’t make this a breakout role for her the way Million Dollar Baby was for Swank. Eastwood and Adams are so strong and watchable, in fact, that they put Timberlake in the shade–it’s not that he gives a less than competent performance, just that he seems like a JV actor next to these two. The movie is also loaded with great older character actors in small roles, like Goodman, Robert Patrick, Ed Lauter, and Bob Gunton, with only Lillard sticking out, painfully unable to do anything with his cartoon-villain role
Trouble lacks the ambition of Invictus, Hereafter or J. Edgar (and also their failings), as well as the life-or-death stakes of Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby or Eastwood’s other classics. It’s a safe, heartwarming bedtime story. with no frills and little nuance, and after a career that’s gone infinitely farther than anyone would have expected 40 years ago, a living legend is entitled to what amounts to a half-day’s work every now and then. If rumors are true, he’s hardly given up on taking risks: supposedly he’ll next tackle A Star Is Born with Beyonce, the Eastwood version of which one can’t even imagine.