Playing a somewhat milder, creakier but no less stubborn curmudgeon than he’s tackled in recent years, Clint Eastwood makes a trusty one-man mascot for all things old-fashioned and dependable in “Trouble With the Curve.” A defiantly analog rejoinder to last year’s tech-savvy baseball drama, “Moneyball,” Robert Lorenz’s square but sturdy directing debut rests on the wonderfully spiky chemistry between Eastwood and Amy Adams as a testy old scout and his equally strong-willed daughter, thrown together on a conventionally well-carpentered journey of reconciliation. Eastwood’s recent political kerfuffle notwithstanding, Warners should have little trouble fielding an audience, especially in heartland states.
If “Moneyball” wryly observed the rise of sabermetrics as a depersonalized system of player evaluation, then “Trouble With the Curve” pointedly tells the story from the perspective of the old guard, those hardened pros who scorn computer-based mumbo-jumbo to assess things with their own well-trained eyes. One of those insistently old-school types is veteran Atlanta Braves scout Gus Lobel (Eastwood), who’s introduced in the bathroom, grumpily dealing with one of old age’s many indignities. More inconvenient professionally is Gus’ failing eyesight, visualized in blurred p.o.v. shots, and what many around him perceive as a waning sense of judgment.
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Concerned that the old man may be on his way to retirement, his colleague Pete (John Goodman) asks Gus’ daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), to constructively intervene. A whip-smart attorney about to make partner at her firm, Mickey has some heavy emotional baggage clearly stemming from her strained relationship with her father. Still, feeling a sense of responsibility, she puts a major case on hold and joins Gus on his latest scouting trip to North Carolina, a decision he initially greets with spluttering protests. But as they hang out in the bleachers — where they’re occasionally joined by Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a young Boston Red Sox scout who clearly has a thing for Mickey — their comfortable old dynamic, itself forged on past daddy-daughter scouting trips like this one, begins to re-emerge.
With his familiar rasp and usual array of grunts and scowls directed at the audience with the subtlest of winks, Eastwood strikes a limited but appropriate range of notes. As conceived, the role is a broad and obvious one, as Gus snorts about the “Interweb” and at one point tells someone to “Get outta here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you!” (It’s not quite “Get off my lawn,” but it’ll do.) But it’s a part that fits Eastwood, ahem, like a glove, and his performance is sharpened and energized at every step by Adams’ engaging turn as a woman who’s sympathetic but tough as nails, and just as comfortable shooting pool in a seedy bar as she is dressing down a rival at work.
The actors’ effortless interplay is full of tetchy, bickersome humor, but also believably steeped in the characters’ shared history, the defining incident of which will be unpacked in somewhat heavy-handed flashbacks. Fortunately, the film frequently shifts its focus from Mickey’s daddy issues toward her slowly blossoming relationship with Johnny, an expected but winning development that affords no shortage of charming moments between Adams and the ever-appealing Timberlake.
Lorenz has served as a producer and/or assistant director on numerous Eastwood-helmed pictures dating back to “The Bridges of Madison County,” and the apprenticeship seems to have taught him well. Availing himself of the talents of such seasoned Eastwood collaborators as cinematographer Tom Stern, editors Gary D. Roach and Joel Cox, and production designer James J. Murakami, Lorenz works in the same clean, aesthetically conservative register as his mentor, evincing a style of restrained classicism, no-nonsense craftsmanship and subdued but quietly enveloping emotion.
It’s an apt approach for the screenplay by Randy Brown (another first-timer), which unapologetically embraces the people, places and traditions that modern society has deemed obsolete and decries the relentless drive to technologize and commodify everything in life, including but not limited to baseball. This is a picture that aims to teach young ‘uns a thing or two about respecting their elders, turning off their smartphones and listening to the people around them for a change.
The work done by Lorenz and his estimable cast and crew here is solid enough to make the medicine go down smoothly. Harder to accept are some of the overly tidy, black-and-white formulations of the script, which saddles both Gus and Mickey with backstabbing corporate nemeses (Matthew Lillard and James Patrick Freetly, respectively), and conveniently turns minor characters, including a key MLB draft pick (Joe Massingill), into easy villains — all of whom exist to be taken down a peg as the film moves toward its upbeat conclusion.
“Trouble With the Curve” will obviously have particular appeal to baseball fans, as Gus, Mickey and Johnny frequently spout statistics and drop references to everyone from Sandy Koufax to Albert Pujols; the title’s literal if not thematic meaning is carefully explicated for the viewer’s benefit. Tastefully shot and scored, the picture was lensed primarily in Georgia, with extensive access to Atlanta’s Turner Field.