Friday, September 21, 2012

Trouble with the Curve: Just about out of the park

Trouble with the Curve (2012) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for occasional profanity and some sexual references
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.21.12

Even the most familiar material will become vibrant in the hands of seasoned pros.

Randy Brown’s impressive debut script for Trouble with the Curve turns this film into a quiet little charmer that focuses on both sports and the angst-laden trauma of a long-estranged father and daughter. Along the way, Brown also scores perceptive points about loyalty, workaholics, the ageist contempt of youth, and the soul-grinding aggravation of growing old.

Veteran baseball scout Gus (Clint Eastwood) is having trouble with his vision, but he
dares not acknowledge this, lest he lose his job. Enter Mickey (Amy Adams), his
long-estranged and only child, who reluctantly serves as her father's eyes while
attempting to re-kindle a bond once characterized by love and a shared devotion
to their favorite sport.
Star Clint Eastwood continues to be at the top of his game, delivering another riff on the “crusty ol’ coot” persona that has served him well in projects ranging from the light-hearted Space Cowboys to the far more serious Gran Torino. His work here slides between those two extremes; Gus Lobel has become too cranky to be actually likable — the ravages of old age merely amplifying his less pleasant qualities — but we sympathize with him nonetheless.

Gus is an old-style baseball scout, long employed by the Atlanta Braves, who loves hunkering in the bleachers and bathing in the magic of the sport’s “true, sweet sound.” He’ll never accept computer-driven stats as a replacement for his devotion to poring over newspapers and tip sheets, and then watching the players, in order to draw his own conclusions.

He is, in short, a dinosaur: an object of ridicule to number-crunching Braves associate scouting director Phillip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who insists that computers can do it faster and far more accurately. Pete Klein (John Goodman), chief of scouts and also Gus’ longtime best friend, is finding it harder and harder to defend the “old ways” to Braves General Manager Vince Freeman (Robert Patrick).

At this crucial moment, with Gus’ contract due to expire in three months, things get even worse as his eyesight begins to fail; an expanding circle in the center of his vision has grown blurry. A reluctant trip to his optometrist confirms the worst: glaucoma and macular degeneration.

The timing couldn’t be worse, because Gus’ next assignment involves a trip to North Carolina, to observe hot Swannanoa High School prospect Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill). The Braves really, really want this kid, and Sanderson is leading that charge; Gus, not to be rushed, wants to reach his own conclusions ... but that’ll be difficult, if he can’t see how Bo handles a pitch.

Enter Gus’ long-estranged daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), a tightly wound associate at a high-powered Atlanta law firm, who has sacrificed everything to sprint along the fast track toward partnership. Mickey essentially has no life outside the office, but this is less a function of ambition, and more a self-defensive coping mechanism.

Once upon a time, long ago, Mickey and her father were inseparable, of necessity; her mother died when she was 6. Gus subsequently hauled his only child along on all his scouting assignments, and she grew to love the male-dominated atmosphere of swearing, joshing and drinking straight whisky. She also adores baseball to every possible degree, having reluctantly sublimated her talent for player stats in favor of torts and legal precedents.

Pete, sensing something wrong with his old buddy, visits Mickey and encourages her to join Gus in North Carolina. Consider it a vacation, Gus suggests. Mickey, literally up to her eyeballs with the case that could help her make partner, declines. But she can’t bury her concern, knowing that her proud, stubborn father would be lost without his career.

So she does what we all try to do, at such moments: She grimly decides to cover both bases, helping her father by day — if he’ll have her — and completing the legal work by night.

The reunion doesn’t start well.

“I don’t need your help,” Gus growls. “I don’t know why you don’t just go home.”

“Because I feel this dysfunctional sense of responsibility to make sure that you’re okay,” Mickey replies, both stung and defiant.

Brown’s script is laced with similarly tart exchanges: often designed to elicit a chuckle, but nonetheless carrying an undercurrent of pain and hard truth. The brittle father/daughter dynamic will feel familiar to those who enjoyed Million Dollar Baby, where Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn resisted developing a relationship with Hilary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald.

Swank made Maggie impossible to resist, though, and the same is true of Adams’ Mickey: She’s spunky, smart and personable, and we begin to wonder about the reason for the distance Gus keeps between them. What the heck happened, back in the day?

Eastwood still get considerable mileage from the reluctant smile that occasionally escapes from behind his familiar scowl, and he quite persuasively conveys the anger of a long-independent man who recognizes — but refuses to accept — the limitations resulting from his advancing years. He positively rages, and of course Mickey becomes the handiest target; we can’t help flinching at his many spiteful words, which land on her like physical blows.

Adams makes Mickey the epitome of multi-tasking talent, while allowing us to recognize that this is something of a charade. For all her poise, this woman is deeply conflicted and vulnerable, and Gus knows precisely how to punch all her buttons.

Enter the catalyst for a change: Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), once one of Gus’ best prospects, and a truly talented pitcher who made the majors but then blew out his arm through injudicious use. Now hoping to become a sports announcer, he’s currently working as a rival scout; Johnny looks up to Gus, and of course goes absolutely potty over Mickey. (Who wouldn’t?)

Timberlake, it must be said, is nauseatingly talented. Well-established pop-star career aside, he’s also a smooth, natural actor with an easy grace in front of the camera, and a facility for the witty, come-hither dialogue that serves as flirting between Johnny and Mickey. They’re adorable together, and we’re reminded anew that his solid performances in The Social Network and the unjustly maligned In Time were no flukes.

Lillard is marvelously, hissably smarmy as the villain of the piece: the guy who deserves whatever humiliation (we hope) retribution has in store. But he’s not the only jerk in this story; Massingill makes Bo a hatefully smug egotist, a little bastard who, sadly, has the talent to get away with the attitude. We hate him just as much.

Goodman exudes warmth and sensitivity as Pete, and Gus spends much of his time with fellow “geezer scout” colleagues entertainingly played by Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross and Ray Anthony Thomas. Watch early on for an appearance by Eastwood’s son, Scott, as Billy Clark, an earlier Gus Lobel discovery currently suffering through a batting slump.

Robert Lorenz, making his directorial debut here, is a longtime colleague of Eastwood’s, having served as producer or second-unit director since 1995’s The Bridges of Madison County. He makes an accomplished transition to the Big Guy’s Chair, drawing credible and comfortable performances from everybody in the cast. Lorenz also has a good ear for dialogue, and he’s careful not to rely overmuch on the tight close-ups that artificially emphasize an emotional scene.

Eastwood has always been a director who lets his actors do the work; Lorenz clearly learned that lesson.

Production designer James J. Murakami easily helps the all-Georgia shooting locations stand in for North Carolina; various Atlanta bars and diners convey the rootless existence of scouts who live on the road, as they observe small farm clubs, high school and college games.

Everything comes together with panache. This is “comfort viewing”: a movie unlikely to make cinematic history, but still the sort of engaging drama that rewards repeat exposure, and likely will wind up in many home libraries.

I look forward to watching it again, and — really — what higher praise could I offer?

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