Clint Eastwood’s best picture since Gran Torino (zero Oscar nominations) is Trouble with the Curve, on the surface a baseball movie but really a defense of a kind of cultural conservatism that is quintessentially Clint. Eastwood plays Gus, a longtime talent scout whose prostate and eyesight are failing at roughly the same rate. By the end of the movie, he hasn’t done anything about these but he has shown some young hotshots a thing or two about experience, wisdom, and age.
Gus, a widower whose wife’s tombstone is inscribed “May the Lord grant you extra innings,” is in danger of losing his job (a fellow scout, played by John Goodman, even suggests this might be a good moment to retire) while in the process of scouting an arrogant small-town slugger (played to perfection by Joe Massingill) who figures to be a first-round draft pick.
Decrying the way that number-crunching knuckleheads like a younger competitor have no feel for the aspects of the game that don’t show up in statistics, Gus believes the human factor is the reason a young protegé is in a slump. So he arranges for the kid’s parents to come see him, and the problem is fixed. Standing in for every young spreadsheet geek (and, without being mentioned, Moneyball) is a rival scout played by Matthew Lillard of The Descendants, who can now boast of playing the sworn enemy of both Eastwood and George Clooney within the space of a year. Lillard’s character believes you can learn everything there is to know about a player without ever attending a ballgame. As Sam Kinison used to say: Is he right? Hint: Gus says things like, “Anybody who uses computers doesn’t know a damn thing about this game!”
Gus has a daughter who has become a big success as a lawyer in Atlanta, but though she grew up talking baseball with her dad, something isn’t right between them. Also, she is working on a case that will determine whether she makes partner, but worrying about what will happen to her dad if he is forced out to pasture, she agrees to come along on his road trip to contribute her considerable baseball acumen and make sure he doesn’t drive too much. He complains that the reason his ‘65 Mustang is looking a little banged-up is because his garage suddenly got smaller.
The lawyer daughter (named Mickey, after Mantle) gradually starts to act a lot like Dad, and though you’ll see this development coming from a mile away, it’s still fun to watch as she adapts to circumstances. A vegan, she starts scarfing hot dogs, hanging out in roadhouses, and proving to be as much of a pool shark as a boardroom one. There’s a nice scene in which Gus pitches her a baseball, and she slugs it deep into the outfield, to his pleased disbelief.
Eastwood is obviously having as much fun playing Gus as he did Walt Kowalski, and though he didn’t direct this film (which is by Robert Lorenz, who has served as assistant director and producer of many of his boss’s films), Trouble with the Curve has the all-American spirit you expect in one of Eastwood’s better efforts. Occasionally it can be a little sappy, and the ending comes in out of left field, but there are so many great scenes featuring the Eastwood snarl and verbal takedown that you’ll forgive its flaws. (Among these are Justin Timberlake, who plays another scout who blew out his arm as a young pitcher and begins to take a shine to Gus’s daughter. Timberlake is still a little hard to take seriously as an actor.)
Eastwood’s films tend not to get a lot of credit for their dialogue but Clint has always cared about words, and screenwriter Randy Brown has an excellent feel for this growling old bear. Asked why he refuses to consult a specialist about his failing eyesight, Gus replies, “You read in the paper about how they’re always taking the wrong part off some guy.” After he throws his furniture around in frustration, he describes the result as exactly how he wanted it: it’s trendy “Fang Shmay.” In a nicely self-deprecating line to a barroom bully who gets a little too touchy with Mickey, he says, “Get out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you.”
The movie winds up predictably, far too much so for the movie to have a chance at Oscar glory, but when Eastwood isn’t trying to be too fancy he can be just about perfect. Cantankerous, curmudgeonly, and conservative, Gus is another funny, tough, and memorable Eastwood figure. He may be in his 80s, but as an actor Eastwood can still knock it out of the park.
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