Film Review: Trouble with the Curve
In sports, it usually takes three of something to deem it a streak, especially in baseball where there’s a number for everything. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that for the second consecutive year we’ve been given a baseball film in late September (recall last year’s Moneyball, the Oscar nominated Billy Beane memoir). This year’s diamond flick, Trouble With The Curve, besides a similar release date examines more front office dynamics, but this time with a slap back at the sabermetric world, balancing front office order by chronicling an aging scout who believes in evaluating players without those hokey computers.
Robert Lorenz (Assistant director of Million Dollar Baby) directs Trouble with the Curve, which follows that scout, Gus Lobel (Clint Eastwood’s first acting role since Gran Torino), a longtime member of the Atlanta Braves’ organization. He believes in his instincts, his failing eyes, and most importantly his still audible ears (he can tell a player’s swing from the crack of the bat). He also could use a word like hokey when describing any form of new technology, discrediting sabermetricians and calling the internet the “interweb.” He’s becoming decrepit, so the line between his idea of baseball purism and headstrong curmudgeon-ism isn’t always so clear. Gus, hailed a prolific scout from his resume of historic players drafted, still knows ‘em when he sees ‘em. But telling his boss he’s healthy to do the job takes some convincing.
Leading a coup against Gus’s scouting wisdom is a cocky front office gunner (Matthew Lillard), who puppies up to the General Manager with statistics galore. They have the second pick in the upcoming draft and can’t afford to choose poorly, god forbid. It is almost a discredit to Moneyball and the current state of baseball that numbers are looked down upon with such a contemptuous eye. Of course, we mostly share the perspective of Gus, who may have glaucoma but refuses to get further testing, so this may explain the computerized, analytical disdain. He is all about intangibles and instincts in the line of battle, though he lacks any instincts when it comes to relationships, namely his 33 year-old daughter Mickey (Mantle).
She, played ambitiously and tenderly by Amy Adams, is a high-level corporate lawyer about to get her break and become a partner in a law firm. Left by her father for guilt-ridden reasons, she never had a strong bond with him in her driven, no play and all work lifestyle that has dominated her professional life and crippled her social one. In one of the film’s more obvious connections, her early boyfriend protests they are perfect on paper, but something is missing. Statistics don’t tell the whole story.
That’s why Gus is chosen to go to North Carolina, to scout a heavily touted high school prospect coveted by many based on his astronomical numbers. With Gus’s obvious aging characteristics however, the director of scouting (John Goodman) convinces Mickey to travel with her dad, and make sure he’s all right. This, though necessary, isn’t taken too kindly by Gus. Living a long, solitary life as a scout (he lost his wife twenty years ago and oddly recites a song by her grave, recollecting shades of the RNC), he has become autonomous and strong headed, finding difficulty in lending responsibility over to someone else. The father-daughter heredity is overtly more than just a shared enthusiasm for America’s pastime.
Mickey’s aid is met with Eastwood’s now standard, almost farcical, grunts and gristly tenor, and he replaces “get off my lawn” with “get away from my daughter” to unfamiliar men courting Mickey, provoking an untapped psychological fatherly duty. One of these men is Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), a former pitcher scouted by Gus who tore his rotator cuff and now works as a Red Sox scout. He becomes a love interest, thankfully enough so we can forget about his supposed dream of being in the broadcast booth. The best scenes he and Mickey share are drunken baseball trivia challenges that have answers only photographic memories could provide.
The high school hot shot they are scouting, Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), has the obvious big muscled, condescending attitude we all love to see find its comeuppance. It’s part of the long-standing tradition of baseball films. It’s also maybe no surprise that while everyone around Gus thinks Bo can do no wrong, the film’s title has some implications. Kicking around leviathan versus dweeb little league clichés, the film’s tonal shifts, a jumbled weaving of heavily layered themes with easily rootable characters, make a very tidy, convenient ending less meaningful.
It’s nice to see a father-daughter baseball relationship, one that hasn’t effectively been told since The Bad News Bears team of Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neil. Adams and Eastwood fall into the generic banalities of the dysfunctional relationship, but in other times elevate it past its commonplace set of replies and retorts. Eastwood has banked on adding life to tired genres like this, but that final zing and humiliation, the cop that gets the robber, doesn’t really provide the same Dirty Harry satisfaction here.
If studios make it a streak and go for a third hit next September, I hope front office harmony can occur, where sabermetricians and guys like Gus don’t gun for each other’s jobs and instead respect each field. How’s that for a baseball pun?