Moneyball, based on the real life Billy Beane, chronicled the way in which baseball has shifted from selecting talent by having physical scouts attempt to determine a player’s je ne sais quoi in person to analyzing data and statistics in rooms lit by laptops. Trouble With The Curve, based on the fictional exploits of grizzled scout Gus Lobel in the throes of glaucoma, is, whether by design or not, an attempt to refute the so-called saber metrics of the former film.
The vital flaw of Trouble With The Curve, however, is its wheezing brontosaur of a screenplay, penned by Randy Brown, that places its characters in creakily familiar situations, provides them moaners and groaners meant to be zingers for dialogue, confuses Fortune Cookie Analysis with real insight, and builds, unshrewdly, to one of the more ludicrous third acts in recent years. One of the few original bits the film has going for it is the fact its very structure seems to resist the overdone baseball movie trope of one final showdown between pitcher and slugger only to, magically, horrifically, bring it around in a scene so artificial I suspect any real fan of our nation’s pastime will seriously consider walking out. And so…if we were to, say, analyze the data of Randy Brown’s work, if we were to employ some sort of screenwriting saber metrics, Trouble With The Curve never would have been called up to the production schedule.
Ah, but often a film goes beyond producers discussing its potential in a conference room. Sometimes it’s less about the material, more about the actors, the je ne sais quoi, and Trouble With The Curve, directed by Robert Lorenz, is saved not only by Clint Eastwood as Lobel but Amy Adams as his daughter Mickey. Improbably, the movie itself counteracts statistical analysis. No doubt this was not intended. Nevertheless.
The film opens by panning framed photos of the young Gus Lobel – photos which are, of course, the young Clint Eastwood, which makes it that much more awkward when we find Gus to be losing his eyesight and possibly his marbles, all of which leads his employer, the Atlanta Braves, to question if he still has what it takes to spot top prospects. His co-worker and pal Pete (John Goodman) steps up for him and Gus gets a last shot of sorts to track a high school sensation as he takes at bats across the mountains of North Carolina.
That’s the jumping off point. The real story concerns Gus and Mickey, not necessarily estranged but also not necessarily on the best of terms. They are barely on terms at all. As it turns out, when Gus’s wife died long ago he sent Mickey away, unable to deal with the responsibilities, and she, in turn, despite turning into a top notch lawyer on the verge of being made partner, has never been able to deal with her father’s decision. This will, as it must, be addressed when Mickey, at Pete’s urging, tags along with her pop on his business trip where they will both further fray the nerves of their relationship and make inelegant strides at patching them back up.
This is still a movie, of course, and, thus, by law Mickey is required in writing to have a Love Interest and he arrives in the form of Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake) – formerly known as “The Flame”, a nickname so insipid “Black Mamba” just bit and killed it – a once great pitcher whose rocket for an arm has gone limp and who has resorted to scouting talent for the Boston Red Sox. He has eyes for the same high school sensation, but has eyes even more for Mickey. Alas, “The Flame” is nice, if flaccid, and Timberlake is still more a situational hitter than an everyday player like his big bat carrying co-stars.
Let’s not sugarcoat it. At its core, Trouble With The Curve is a subpar movie. Its plotting is frustratingly in-organic, the bit of business meant to cover for Gus as to why he sent his daughter away is too sensationalistic, and, worst of all, it resolves its many conflicts perfunctorily and mechanically, with sugar on top. All of which makes it that much more astounding that Eastwood and especially Adams succeed in spite of their movie’s self.
Gus is grumpy, Mickey is combative, and this never really changes. They remain at distinct, if mostly civil, odds throughout, but the performances, in spite of the unsubtle dialogue, suggest that even if their relationship is beyond full repair, they have reached a level of acceptance. She reaches out to him, mainly through baseball, and Gus is able to realize that despite his failings his daughter is standing quite mightily on her own. And that is the one thing the film really gets right – midway through quietly shifting its protagonist from Gus to Mickey.
In the last moment, when Gus hobbles off to catch a bus, it’s as if Eastwood has nobly decided to cede the spotlight to Trouble With The Curve’s real star.