Friday, September 28, 2012

"Trouble" with the Curve

You see what I did there? How I used quotation marks to emphasize the one word in the title of the movie that actually describes its execution? Wasn't that clever? What? It wasn't? Well, Clint Eastwood has made a career out of making similar unsubtle statements in his films he directs. No, it hasn't always been a deal killer; he has built movies wonderful (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby), awful (Letters from Iwo Jima, Hereafter) and everywhere in between (Mystic River, J. Edgar). But anyone who contends that he is a great director has obviously been swayed by his long acting career and forgiven many of the cliched storytelling elements he includes in his pictures, ones that most truly talented filmmakers would never use in this day and age.

I was worried at first that this style would be the problem with Trouble with the Curve, which is also Eastwood's first acting gig since people say he was snubbed for a Best Actor nomination in 2008's Gran Torino. Surprisingly, while there are a few cliched moments (parent releasing child's hand to show abandonment, a few lingering shots expressing a character's loneliness), Trouble was not the technical abomination I had been expecting. I found out in the closing credits for the reason for this; turns out the film wasn't directed by Eastwood at all. Instead it was filmed by Robert Lorenz, who had been an assistant director on over twenty films. While Lorenz certainly learned a bit from working with Eastwood on Bloodwork, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, it's obvious he also developed his style from working with other directors, making for a thankfully more adept movie than I was expecting.

Timberlake gets directing tips from Eastwood.
It's a shame that my expectations had been so low, as a movie featuring baseball, Eastwood, Amy Adams and BASEBALL should have been one of my more highly expected theatrical releases. It was, but more for potential than what I actually thought I would see. Eastwood plays longtime baseball scout Gus Lobel; an employee of the Atlanta Braves, Gus is as old-fashioned a talent scout as you can get, completely eschewing the modern computer age and relying exclusively on what he can see in a player. This hasn't endeared him to his superiors in Atlanta, who want him to check out a highly-touted player in the Carolinas as their potential top pick in the upcoming draft. The expectation is that if Gus fails, they can simply let his swiftly-expiring contract run out. When his longtime friend and superior Pete (John Goodman) worries about his diminishing health, he calls Gus' daughter Mickey (Adams) to join him to see if there is anything she can do. With relations already strained between Gus and Mickey, all they can do try to communicate with one another while bonding over the one thing they both seem to love; baseball.

Unfortunately, just because it's not directed by its star doesn't mean that it's automatically better. This is the first ever published screenplay by Randy Brown, and it definitely shows in the overly-simple rendition of what should be deep emotional themes. There doesn't seem to be any consistency in the routes the characters take, with the relationship between Gus and Mickey especially jumpy in between scenes. One scene they seem fine, the next they're at each others' throats. There are reasons for that, and the film does its best to lay them all out, but I never felt as though any middle ground between those two points was explored. Adams is nevertheless wonderful, her naturally bubbly persona taking a backseat to a serious, dramatic side that gets her attention and awards. Eastwood however tends to rest on his laurels, with only a few scenes making him reach as a performer. His role is fine, as is that of Justin Timberlake as a former player turned scout (turned love interest for Mickey) for the Boston Red Sox, but both are limited to performances that are high on levity and short on storytelling.

Standing around waiting for something to happen; just like the real game!
Worse is the cliched junk that seems tossed in as filler. Of COURSE there's an "evil scout" who relies solely on computer data (Matthew Lillard) who actually seems to want Gus fired. Of COURSE the player Gus is asked to scout is a complete asshole. Of COURSE he has a fatal flaw which is not apparent at the college level but that Gus knows will prevent him from being successful in the big leagues. Of COURSE the answer to everyone's dreams is telegraphed a mile away. Of COURSE Gus is losing the ONE THING (his eyesight) which would prevent him from excelling at his job. Of COURSE they use a Dirty Harry scene for a flashback. Okay, that last one was a bit out of left field. The point is that for every decent or genuinely good thing Trouble pitches us, it lobs more than a few stinkers that undermine the quality of the film. A script rewrite should have been in order, and the lack of one indicates that Eastwood was more in charge than we were led to believe.

"Wait, he gave us a bad review?"
Trouble with the Curve came out with a LOT of potential. Baseball may not be that popular sport, but it has inspired more great stories in film and print than just about any other game, even the all-powerful sport of football. For a baseball story to appear so hollow and disingenuous is certainly a disappointment, especially when it gathers such a solid blend of acting talent as its foundation. Still, Curve disappoints, especially considering its fighting the scout/computer battle has been more or less settled in the years following the publication of Moneyball. Like Eastwood, Curve is a story out of time, not exactly sure where we are today, and both scared and angry about it.

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