MOVIE REVIEW: Trouble with the Curve

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TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE-- 3 STARS

The new baseball film, Trouble with the Curve, is the anti-Moneyball.  Last years's Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller film featured the growing value of statistics and mathematics in baseball over the old-fashioned nose of human scouting.  It starred an unwrinkled Brad Pitt as the general manager of the Oakland A's, a guy who was cutthroat with business and took care of himself off of the field and out of the office.  Devoid of all romance, Moneyball begged to be taken seriously, while still having the necessary "big game" to be a worthy sports film.

Trouble with the Curve goes just about the entirely opposite direction.  It's fairly light fiction instead of fact, with a touch of family drama.  Within baseball, it calls upon the old-school world of scouting instinct over Sabermetrics and computers.  Instead of the multiple "Sexiest Man Alive" Pitt, you get 82-year-old and heavily-weathered Clint Eastwood, in his first acting gig in over four years (and first not under his own direction in 19 years).   It's OK, ladies, you get Justin Timberlake for a consolation prize.

In the meantime, Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, a longtime and renowned talent scout for the Atlanta Braves organization.  He's discovered most of that ball club's great talent over the last 40+ years.  John Goodman plays his boss and only long-time friend Pete.  With his advancing age, Gus's track record for reeling in beneficial prospects has been slipping and Pete is worried, and he should be.  Gus is denying that early glaucoma is stealing his valuable and necessary eyesight.  Above Pete is the astute Braves general manager (Robert Patrick) and Theo Epstein-esque "new blood" computer and stat guy (Matthew Lilliard) who's gunning for the top job.  With only three months left on his contract, Gus is on the cusp of being phased out.

Bouncing around the dirt fields of high schools through the American Southeast, crappy motels, and even crappier diners and bars with a few fellow scouts (including sports film vets Ed Lauter and Chelcie Ross) and always armed with a cigar and a Schlitz, Gus is a solo artist on the road and likes it that way.  He knew the road was no place for a family, but did marry once and have a daughter, Mickey.  That little girl learned and loved her baseball, but when her mother died when she was 6, Gus passed her on to an uncle to grow up.

Now 33 years old and on the verge of becoming a partner at an Atlanta law firm, Mickey (played by Academy Award nominee Amy Adams) still keeps a tenuous relationship of guilt and responsibility with her father.  They visit from time to time and share small talk, but never tackle the elephant in the room of why Gus left her as a kid.  When Pete tells Mickey of Gus's troubles, she puts work on hold to shadow her dad on the road to scout a big North Carolina hitting prospect.  While on this trip, Gus (and, of course, Mickey) runs into a former player that he once scouted, Johnny Flanagan (Timberlake), who's become a rival Boston Red Sox scout to stay in the game after blowing out his arm.  I wonder if they hit it off?

Trouble with the Curve has the cliched conveniences of a romantic comedy, but offers more than that to appreciate thanks to Clint Eastwood.  He's always been an actor you can't help but enjoy watching, even if it's the same growl every time lately.  Just when you think his routine doesn't have range, he still surprises you with his humor and heart.  Amy Adams has the talent to hang with the legend.  Working comfortably between her range of Giselle from Enchanted and her potty-mouthed tough girl from The Fighter, she brings her own flaws to Mickey to clash with Clint.  To not be a complete film of awkward conversations, she gets an easy romance with Timberlake to break up the mild drama.

The film itself, the directorial debut of Eastwood protege Robert Lorenz, keeps things light and in-between the foul lines, even with its large dose of father-daughter strain.  Fading its shots in and out of the Georgia greenery (doubling as North Carolina), Trouble with the Curve is good fall entertainment for those who aren't looking for a big challenge and like old-school baseball over the statistic-heavy Moneyball.  The movie is not going to be nominated for any awards (not should it), but it does its job to entertain and put on a show before "the big show."

LESSON #1: HUMAN OBSERVATION VERSUS COMPUTED STATISTICS-- Like I alluded with the comparisons to Moneyball, this film is like the Republican response of old-school road scouts to the Democratic computerized invasion of statistics in baseball.  Those characters Brad Pitt fired and made fun of in Moneyball are your heroes here.  Clint's character represents the notion that a computer or stat sheet can't show intangibles, can't watch with instinct or detect instinct, and can't really identify talent beyond the math.

LESSON #2: ACCEPTING CHANGE-- In typical "get off my lawn" Eastwood fashion, his character is, of course, behind the times for his profession and surroundings.  He's the classic "old dog" not learning "new tricks."  Gus is at the age where he's not going to change.  His instincts and eye for talent have served him this far and he's going to stick with that.  Where he does have to change is with Mickey.

LESSON #3: FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS BUILT AROUND GUILT-- Speaking of that, both Mickey and Gus have a relationship with each other based on guilt.  Gus, while he doesn't know how to say it, has always been guilty for passing Mickey off when she was little.  He's proud of her, loves her, but has lost that connection after being her hero as a girl.  On the other end, Mickey is guilty that the split was her fault.  She's also feels guilty that Gus has been alone all of these years.  It's nice to see these two characters confront and work through that in spending more time together than they have in years.