PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW
TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Robert Lorenz, 2012 (Warner Bros.)
He’s an old guy and he knows it and so do we. But he’s still got chops. And he can still surprise us. One of the first times we see Clint Eastwood, in his latest role as aging longtime baseball scout Gus Lobel in Trouble with the Curve, he’s talking to his penis, standing in the john, trying to coax his aging and now cantankerous prostate into action — and then cursing it out after he finally gets a decent stream. “I outlasted you, ya little bastard,” he says. A classic Clint Line — full of macho bile, funny profanity and an edge covering that air of sweet geniality which is the flipside, or underside, or secret identity of his gruff “Don’t mess with me” Dirty Harry persona.
Trouble With the Curve is Eastwood’s first role on screen since the seemingly valedictory aging tough guy retiree part of Walt Kowalski in 2008’s Gran Torino. It’s a good role, and, for the most part, a good movie, even though it’s, at times, corny and predictable and full of clichés and a shameless star vehicle and yatta-yatta-yatta. Clichés don’t damage a movie as much as most people think though; what matters is how you play them. And, if anyone can liven up a gunfight or a bar-fight or a car-chase or a put-down, it’s Eastwood.
In this case, C. E. puts the juice into a predictable but very good-natured baseball movie about an old coot of a scout going blind and trying to hide it and hang on as the younger punks in the Atlanta Braves front office try to shove him out the door. Meanwhile, stubborn Gus goes on the road to North Carolina to evaluate a supposed high school homer-hitting phenom, this time with the help of his very brainy, very pretty lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), with whom he’s always had communication problems since her mom died when Mickey was 6, but with whom he now gets a chance to bond.
Wait a minute. Did I say that John Goodman is on board also as Gus’ best friend in the front office, chief of scouts Pete Klein, who keeps trying to save his buddy’s butt from the resident smart-ass, Philip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), who’s angling for Pete’s job, and probably saw Moneyball five times and sounds as if he should be on a yacht somewhere, sloshing a martini and putting moves on Mila Kunis. Or that Mickey has a likely beau in Johnny “The Flame” Flanagan (played by who else but Justin Timberlake), a one time flame-throwing pitcher whom Gus recruited and who blew out his arm in middle relief in the bigs and now is one of Gus’ rival scouts, working for the Red Sox? Or that there’s a bar scene where the bar regulars do a clog dance and where some joker hits on Mickey at the pool table, and Gus rams him against the wall and wheezes “Now get the hell out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you.” (See what I mean about pros and clichés?)
Well, just don’t yell “Spoiler Alert” at me if I mention that the object of all these scouting reports and Machiavellian machinations, the home-run-hitting high school phenom Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), is a pudgy ego-maniac who bullies his teammates, insults Mexican peanut vendors, acts like a real asshole, and maybe has — dare I say it — trouble hitting the curve ball.
Talk about clichés: It turns out that Mickey is named Mickey because her dad’s favorite player was Mickey Mantle, which inspires Johnny the Flame to a joke about how it’s a good thing her father’s favorite player wasn’t Yogi Berra. (It’s a good thing Gus’ favorite player wasn’t Fernando Valenzuela.)
Well, look, I’m not trying to be a smart-ass myself. I liked most of those scenes and all of those characters and most of the actors (especially Eastwood and Adams) — except for the final turn-about in the Braves stadium, an inspirational scene that strains credulity, as Yogi might have said, to the point of credulity, But it almost works. And the whole movie might have been terrific, actually, if Eastwood had directed it as well as produced and acted in it. Trouble with the Curve is one of those “little” movies he liked to make in his big star actor-director heyday: movies like the antic Bronco Billy and the melancholy Honkytonk Man — the more offbeat shows that pointed the way to his eventual prestige-laden post-Unforgiven career.
Eastwood was the producer here, and his director — the first time Clint has acted for somebody besides himself, since Wolfgang Petersen guided him In the Line of Fire — was Robert Lorenz, Eastwood’s long-time, but not aging, producer, assistant director and second unit director. This is obviously a “thank you” from the boss, giving Lorenz his shot, which he might have gotten anyway, but maybe not with the boss on screen. And Lorenz does a good job, just not a great one. Eastwood could obliterate clichés. Lorenz just lets them ride, and keeps us engaged until the next good scene (the ones, usually with Clint and Amy) come along. There’s a rumor that Eastwood was actually a secret director of the Eastwood-starring films made by company guys like James Fargo and Buddy Van Horn. But, although Trouble With the Curve is obviously influenced by Eastwood’s terse, clean, hard-edged style, and it’s obviously a project and a cast to his taste, I’d be surprised if, this time, he hadn’t just set the thing up and let Lorenz have his day. Of course, C. E. probably put his two cents worth in, every once in a while. After all, he was one of the producers.
Eastwood’s personality (a mixture of acid and playful machismo and idealism and professionalism) comes across in the character of Gus. Ever since Unforgiven, Eastwood has taken his star persona — one of the most potent in all movies — and exposed the flaws, and the foibles, and the hidden little kinks and contradictions beneath themt. When he stopped his regular acting chores in his movies, he subjected his directorial personality to the same tough re-examination. It’s not by accident that Republican Eastwood works so well, as a director, with lefties like Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in non-clichéd projects like Mystic River.
As long as we mentioned Republicans, and since Eastwood’s big media splash before Trouble was his Romney endorsement and his dialogue with the empty chair at the G. O. P. convention, and since I voted for Barack Obama, I might as well get in my two cents worth about the chair gig, where Clint pretended to gab with Obama, and correct his language and question his economic judgment. I didn’t like it, not because I don’t think Clint can say whatever he wants about whatever he wants, but because I didn’t think it was very funny. It felt like Eastwood’s shit detector had temporarily broken down, like he couldn‘t tell what a load of horse manure the Romney campaign and Fox News and their ilk were dumping on the public. He says he was just riffing, but, if he had a writer, he needed a better one.
My mother Edna was a lifelong Republican too, and every year until she was 93, whenever I could, I took her to the polling station and I made sure she got to vote, even though I knew her Republican ballot was cancelling out my Democrat one. Then, in her last primary and her last election, she told me she voted both times for Obama, because she liked him on TV on MSNBC, which she watched because she thought Fox News was a travesty. Maybe she just wanted to make me feel good. She was a big Clint Eastwood fan too, and he was always very nice to her, whenever he met her in public. Like Obama , he’s a good politician. Well, maybe he has a little trouble with the curve sometimes.
Extras: Discussion between Eastwood and Lorenz; Discussion with Adams and Timberlake.