Even The Man With No Name can change his mind, and a good thing too.
Clint Eastwood told the world he was finished with acting after 2008’s “Gran Torino,” but “Trouble With the Curve” has lured him in front of the camera one more time. This amiable, old-fashioned film is no world-beater, but it underlines why, appearances with empty chairs excepted, it is always a pleasure to see this man on the screen.
Eastwood plays Gus Lobel, a venerable scout for the Atlanta Braves baseball team who finds it increasingly difficult to mask the creeping ravages of age. Gus is a cantankerous coot who trips over furniture, has urinary problems and mutters “I don’t need easier” whenever anyone makes the mistake of trying to help him out.
It is not only the 82-year-old Eastwood’s gift for making acting look relaxed and natural that stands out here, it is how unusual it is for Hollywood to place someone with more lines than the DMV front and center in a major motion picture. Audiences lose a significant part of the human experience when filmmakers shy away from portraying this stage of life, though it does take someone of Eastwood’s clout to make it happen.
One of the factors getting Eastwood acting again was the directing debut of Robert Lorenz, his longtime producer. Lorenz’s self-effacing style allows the actor to relax into the role of crusty and crabby old-timer that is pretty much second nature to him by now.
Though first-time feature writer Randy Brown’s script is so familiar you can see many of its plot points a mile away, it does allow Eastwood the time and space to develop the raspy-voiced disdainful character whose idea of polite conversation is barking “how the hell do you know I’m lucky to be alive.”
The reason for that furniture tripping is that Gus is on the way to being “blind as a slab of concrete.” A combination of macular degeneration and possible glaucoma has given him vision problems that glasses don’t correct, and though he hides the situation from his superiors, it makes it difficult for him to effectively do his job as a scout for the Atlanta Braves.
Gus, it should be noted, is not just any scout, oh, no. According to his boss Pete Klein (John Goodman), the Braves’ chief of scouts, Gus is one of the best the game has ever seen, someone who could “spot talent from an airplane.”
Not so sure is Phillip Sanderson (Matthew Lillard), an insidious fifth column inside the Braves organization. While Gus has disdain for what he calls “the interweb,” Phillip, like the protagonists of “Moneyball,” lives and dies by computer statistics and thinks first-hand observation is a relic of the past.
This dispute comes to a head when, with the baseball draft coming up, the Braves need to know whether to use their No. 1 pick on Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a North Carolina high school phenom with a sweet swing and a name like a stripper. Pete puts his foot down and insists that no decision be made until Gus eyeballs him. But, suspecting that those eyeballs are not what they used to be, he asks Mickey Lobel for help.
Though named after Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle, Mickey, played by Amy Adams, is Gus’ daughter, not his son. She is also a big-time lawyer in Atlanta, given to wearing tailored suits and on track to be the youngest partner her firm ever had, not to mention the only woman.
A single parent since Mickey’s mom died (she’s buried under a tombstone reading “May the Lord Grant You Extra Innings”), Gus has not been the world’s most attentive dad.
So it’s no shock that Mickey is more than fed up with her father, and Adams, who after “The Fighter” and “The Master” is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s go-to actress for characters who take no guff, relishes her many opportunities to go toe to toe with Eastwood.
But despite all the bad blood, not to mention the pressures of her job and that potential promotion, wouldn’t you know it that Mickey, who has “picked up a few things growing up,” shows up in North Carolina determined to help her dad with his assignment even though he’s bound and determined not to allow it.
Added to the mix is the requisite handsome young man who takes one look at Mickey and is smitten. In this case it’s Johnny “The Flame” Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), scouted by Gus once upon a time as a high school phenom, but now an easygoing rival scout who has his eye both on Mickey and on a potential future as a baseball broadcaster.
All this is nothing if not familiar, so much so that it wouldn’t have hurt the film to pick up the pace from time to time. Brown’s script creates further problems by getting increasingly serious and contrived, throwing in heavy family drama late in the game and working overtime to tidy up numerous plot strands. Fortunately, the acting talent is strong enough to ride out the storm.
No one wants Eastwood to reinstate his retirement from acting decree, but with that possibility in mind look out for a scene where Gus counsels a younger player named Billy Clark about the importance of family. If that moment plays with more intimacy than you might expect, that’s because Billy Clark is played by the actor’s son, Scott Eastwood. It’s a nice touch to go out on, if it comes to that.
‘Trouble With the Curve’
MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, sexual references, some thematic material and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release