There are no troublesome curves in Trouble With the Curve: Every pitch is a floater, slow and straight and wobbly, the ball visible for so long you get bored waiting for it to arrive — to the point where a couple of pitches actually sneak by. As formulaic as any Disney Channel movie about a girl and her Gramps, the film would barely be worth talking about if weren’t yet another chapter in the peculiarly self-parodic self-mythologizing of Clint Eastwood, American Icon.
Once used primarily to express white American potency, lean and mean, Eastwood’s vigilante became a “dinosaur” in the early seventies, under fire from minorities demanding civil liberties and women demanding to be treated as equals and homosexuals demanding … whatever it is deviants demand. By Sudden Impact, Eastwood was trying to have it both ways: Dirty Harry’s “Go ahead, make my day” is meant as a satire of vigilantism, except that blowing away freaks really does get him — and us — off. After Unforgiven, in which the vigilante hero is depicted as a damned soul (but what other choice does a real man have in a world so venal?), Eastwood began the dance of self-pity that peaked for him as an actor with In the Line of Fire (a graceful, affecting performance) and has bottomed out with the twin spectacles of Trouble With the Curve and his RNC turn — the first engineered by his company, Malpaso, to underline his seniority yet make him look absolutely right in all things, the latter leaving both him and his views cruelly exposed.
In Trouble, Eastwood plays grumpy Gus, an Atlanta Braves baseball scout who talks to his penis in his first scene (the Magnum doesn’t shoot as straight these days) and copes with losing his eyesight in the second. On one hand, he’s stubbornly in denial. On the other: Why should he retire? He’s wiser than the rest of ‘em (any ‘em you could name) put together. No matter what Eastwood’s age, the takeaway for his adversaries is always the same: You don’t listen, do ya, asshole?
The odds are great against Gus being heard. He doesn’t have a computer to look at stats, and the team’s yuppie whippersnapper (Matthew Lillard) thinks he’s past his prime — and the creep doesn’t even know that Gus is going blind. The owner (Robert Patrick) is unlikely to extend his contract when it expires in three months. Gus’s old friend Pete (John Goodman), the head of the scouting program, has no choice but to visit Gus’s daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), an unmarried lawyer on the verge of becoming her old-white-boy firm’s first female partner. Mickey has regular dinners with Gus, but they don’t talk much. (Partial backstory: After Mickey’s mother died when she was six, Gus gave her to her uncle and then sent her away to school.) Pete pleads with Mickey to accompany her dad on a trip to North Carolina to check out a high-school prospect for the coming draft. She says no, she has the biggest case of her career looming. But if she doesn’t go there’s no movie. So she goes.
Directed by Robert Lorenz, a Malpaso producer and one-time Eastwood assistant director, Trouble With the Curve has a timeless script, meaning it sounds as if it could have been written any time in the last 30 years — no, make that 50: Gus actually refers to Mickey’s yoga as “voodoo.” Every scene is shaped to make you like Gus and Mickey and sneer at the people who are sneering at and discriminating against them. Although they sit in the North Carolina bleachers trading insults and recriminations, it’s increasingly clear that what separates them isn’t real — it’s just based on a misunderstanding. Somewhere in that back story is an incident that Mickey has repressed and that recurs in Gus’s dreams. He sent her away because he loved her. He just hasn’t — the proud, stubborn old fool — been able to tell her. (It hinges on a pedophile. As in Mystic River, righteously beating one up brings grief on the pedophile-beater — but what other choice does a real man have in a world so venal?)
As cheap as the whole set-up is, the actors make wonderful music together — even if there’s not much left of Eastwood’s vocal cords except a handful of dust. Adams is marvelous, as good as she has ever been. Like Katie Couric, she’s often viewed as “perky” and “sweet,” although it doesn’t take much to perceive the steeliness below the surface, the scalpel behind the smile. The role of Mickey uses both the sweetness and the steel — and Adams uses her obvious adoration for Eastwood to create an amazing amount of sympathy for the character. Even as Mickey tells Gus off she hangs on his every inflection, desperate to hear that she’s as important to him as he is to her. And Mickey really is Gus’s daughter. She takes no guff from lackeys and she’s always right.
Because Eastwood can’t marry his daughter, the script supplies another likely lover, Johnny Flanagan, a Red Sox scout who was a pitching prodigy before he blew out his arm under the direction of criminally shortsighted coaches. (Gus could have stopped them, but the assholes didn’t listen.) With his small shoulders, Justin Timberlake wouldn’t have been my first choice for the part, but he’s a likable sort-of-actor who’s credibly smitten with both Mickey and Gus. All three leads are fine company.
But there’s only so much freedom these actors have with plotting this canned. The prospect whom Gus is scouting is a piggy sexist smug entitled jerk who also has a weakness only Gus can spot, even without his eyes: He’s dead meat with any half-decent curve. But will anyone listen? (If anyone did, how could he say, “You don’t listen, do ya, asshole?”) I got a sinking feeling when a poor-but-clean-cut Latino kid appeared and the piggy prospect called him “Peanut Boy” — I knew exactly where the movie was going and so will you. I could never have imagined, though, how crude the wrap-up would be, like a thirties musical in which everyone’s tidily paired up only without a good dance number to send you home happy.
Eastwood didn’t write or direct Trouble With the Curve, but it’s shaped by people who work for him to suit his worldview, and it overlaps with what we saw at the Republican National Convention. A social libertarian who conquered homophobia and nowadays publicly affirms the right of gays to marry (given the number of children he has fathered out of wedlock, he could hardly argue that gay couples are a threat to the nuclear family), Eastwood believes there’s no need for a “social contract” because we live in a meritocracy. That Latino teen whose mama works so hard at the desk of that crumbling motel: Neither he nor his mother need a government handout. All they need to do is toil stalwartly and the rest will fall into place. The kid will be spotted and he’ll get his shot. The scum will fall and the cream will rise. And Clint will always, always get the last word — even if he has to cast himself opposite an empty chair.