Director: Robert Lorenz
Rating PG-13. Running Time: 111 mins.
Stars: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, John Goodman
Like a big, looping knuckleball, Clint Eastwood's new movie Trouble With the Curve wanders amiably, threatens to go wild, but in the end settles smack in the middle of the plate.
Clint, now 82, plays Gus, a cranky old baseball scout who still pores over local newspaper sports pages for the inside dope on promising newbies — while his younger colleagues swear by electronic spreadsheets and computer models. He's been scouring minor league ballparks, inhaling red dirt and fertilizer (and smoke from the prodigious cigars he fancies) since the 1970s, and he's not about to change the way he does business, even though the young turks consider him a squinty-eyed, gobble-necked dinosaur.
See also: Classic baseball movies.
In other words, remember the hopelessly mired-in-the-past baseball scouts who went up against computer-savvy Brad Pitt in Moneyball? In Trouble With the Curve, those guys are the heroes and Pitt is the insufferable loser. And that's a universe in which I'm very comfortable.
Of course, substitute "cranky old baseball scout" with "boxing coach," "astronaut," "gunslinger" or "detective" and you've got an apt description for just about every character Clint has played for the last three decades or so. And that's fine, too. For those of us who have joined the old guards of our chosen professions, the notion of a seasoned pro who shares our reluctance to adapt while managing, against the odds, to excel in a brave new world is not just appealing, it's downright necessary.
And so we get Gus, whose struggles against old age are not just galling, they're career-threatening: He's developed severe sight problems, a seemingly insurmountable professional obstacle when your job is assessing the break on a rookie's curveball.
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But Gus has had a blind spot of another kind for decades: He's failed to see the heartbreak of his grown daughter, Mickey (adorable Amy Adams), the girl he virtually abandoned to the care of distant relatives after the death of his wife a quarter-century ago. Now a top-flight Atlanta lawyer, Mickey has understandable man issues, and her relationship with her dad involves an endless series of aborted dinners as one or the other inevitably ends up throwing down a napkin and stalking out.
But they do love each other. When Gus' best friend and boss in the Atlanta Braves front office (John Goodman, lovably bearish as ever) sees his old pal struggling, he enlists Mickey to accompany Gus on a scouting trip to North Carolina. It is, naturally, just what dad and daughter need. In the course of a few days, Gus proves that his acumen extends beyond his eyesight, and Mickey discovers that maybe she can trust a man after all — especially if the man is twinkly-eyed Justin Timberlake, who pops up as a rival scout with good reasons to be fond of both Gus and Mickey. Most important, father and daughter discover the qualities each thought the other lacked, and at the fade-out we know everybody is going to live happily ever after, no matter how many innings they go.
Also of interest: Fall Movies for Grownups.
Except, of course, for those humiliated young turks, who once again have learned a thing or two from an old master.
Along the way, the hill country of North Georgia subs scenically for North Carolina, and first-time director Robert Lorenz does a nice job of evoking small-town America without condescension. (I especially liked the tattered sign outside Gus' motel, which reads: "Lowest rats in town.")
Occasionally, we wish it were Clint behind the camera — a climactic scene in which Gus finally explains to Mickey why he felt he was an unfit father is bungled; what should have been a pivotal moment becomes an afterthought — but at other times it seems as if the veteran star, relieved of directorial duties, is truly immersed in his character. Crouched at the grave of his wife, Gus whispers the words of their favorite song, "You Are My Sunshine." With each line, his profound sadness and regret push a bit closer to the surface, until at the end he can barely finish, and we can hardly stand it. It's not our place to know where Clint went inside himself to draw out that moment, but it stands as a reminder that Eastwood, for all his career iconography, remains a consummate screen actor.
Must-See World Series Movies
The World Series is coming up, and while no self-respecting baseball fan would ever watch a movie about the Fall Classic during an actual game, here are a few Series-inspired movies that might make for a pleasant diversion in case of a rain delay.
Damn Yankees (1958)
Sadly underrated, this big-screen adaptation of the stage musical smash stars two of the original Broadway stars — Ray Walston and Gwen Verdon — as the Devil ("Mr. Applegate") and his curvy assistant, Lola. Together they promise long-suffering Washington Senators fan Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter) that his team will beat out the hated Yanks in that year's pennant race and go the World Series if only he'll pledge his soul to old Beelzebub. Hunter is fine as the die-hard fan who gets to play for his favorite team, but it's Verdon and Walston who steal the show with "Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets)" and Satan's darkly hilarious lament, "Those Where the Good Old Days."
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is furious. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who runs the psychiatric ward with an iron fist, won't let him and the other patients watch the World Series. So he sits in front of the blank TV screen and gives the rapid play-by-play of an imaginary game between New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. "Koufax is in big trouble!" he screams as the other patients (including Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd) watch over his shoulder. Nurse Ratched observes, expressionless, from the nurses' station, but we know this battle of wits isn't over. Not by a long shot.
The Natural (1984)
The final drama of Robert Redford's dreamily romantic fantasia on the mythical appeal of baseball unfolds on the last day of the regular season, as the New York Knights face off against the Pittsburgh Pirates for the pennant, and the right to go to the Series. Battling old age, self-doubt and a bullet that's been lodged in his belly for a decade or so, Roy Hobbs stands at the plate in the bottom of the ninth and, to Randy Newman's soaring score, does exactly what he's expected to do. We never do see the Series, but then, who remembers which team won the Fall Classic after Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world" handed the Giants the pennant in 1951?
Eight Men Out (1988)
You can have your performance-enhancing drug scandals — the darkest blot ever endured by baseball was inflicted nearly 100 years ago when members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. A great cast of now impossibly young actors — including Charlie Sheen, John Cusack and David Strathairn — manage to elicit a somber sympathy for a bunch of guys who played their hearts out, except when they didn't.
Game 6 (2005)
Go ahead, turn to any Boston Red Sox fan and say the words "game six," and you'll see a twinge of despair. That's because in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, the Sox were one out away from breaking the curse that had haunted them since they sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees: They were about to snatch the World Series from the New York Mets. But a groundball between the legs of first baseman Bill Buckner ended that dream, and this movie, starring Michael Keaton as a beleaguered Sox fan, tries to come to grips with the sense of grim destiny that dogs the perennially unsuccessful. There's an insightful script by novelist Don DeLillo (his only one to date) and thoughtful direction by Michael Hoffman (The Last Station). Lots of movies celebrate the glories of baseball and apply them to life's little triumphs — this one is brave enough to explore the darker side of victory: That there's always a losing team.
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