Trouble With the Curve: A Solid Hit for Clint Eastwood

At 82, the Hollywood icon and RNC ad-libber gets good wood on a baseball story as venerable and compelling as its star

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Warner Bros.

At the Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood gave a performance of such surpassing weirdness, and stole so much attention from Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech the same night, that some viewers suspected he was a stealth agent for Barack Obama. But how could the octogenarian Dirty Harry top his talking-to-the-chair routine? By talking to his penis. In the first moments of Trouble With the Curve, as veteran baseball scout Gus Lobel, Eastwood stands over a motel-room toilet, attempting to pee despite evident prostate problems. When he finally succeeds he looks down and mutters, “Don’t laugh. I outlasted you, ya little bastard.”

Gus, like Clint at the RNC, has issues with furniture too: when it gets in his way, he beats it up, leaving it in a pile in a corner. (To a quizzical visitor he describes this arrangement of kindling as “fung shmei. Don’t you know anything?”) At 82, in just his third movie role in a decade, after Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino, and his first since the 1993 In the Line of Fire for another director — here, first-timer Robert Lorenz — Eastwood continues his spot-on depiction of crabby old guys who get humanized by young women. Eastwood’s pairing with Amy Adams as his rebellious daughter gives the star his most satisfying emotional tandem since he hooked up with Hilary Swank in another little sports movie, Million Dollar Baby.

(READ: How Clint Got His Chair Inspiration)

The strictly old-school Gus, whose only accommodation to modernity is a creaky cell phone the size of home plate, has scouted for the Atlanta Braves at least since the ’60s, when he spotted the young Dusty Baker, and through the team’s golden age, when he signed Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones. Gus figures he can tell which kid will be a major leaguer by the smoothness of a swing, the sound of the ball hitting the bat or glove — important to him now that his eyesight is failing. But in the era of sabermetrics, which prizes stats like Wins above Replacement above the in-person judgment of men who’ve spent a half-century inside baseball, Gus is an anachronism, a valueless artifact from an antiques roadshow. His declarations that “The scouts are the heart of this game” and “Anybody who uses computers doesn’t knew a damn thing about this game” don’t endear him to a stats-loving front-office creep (Matthew Lillard) eager to become the Braves’ next General Manager.

(READ: Corliss’s fan notes on his team, The Oakland A’s)

Randy Brown’s original screenplay might be a rebuttal to last year’s Moneyball, which cast Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane, a real-life disciple of Bill James and his creed of reading the statistics over watching the game. Most teams now employ both strategies in choosing and evaluating players; and Moneyball fudged the debate by hyping the contributions of computer lore to the A’s measure of success a decade ago and ignoring the team’s sterling young pitching staff. Trouble With the Curve is equally as reductive. When Gus gets a last chance to check out a high-school phenom named Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a swaggering slugger who has already attained Prince Fielder’s girth and José Canseco’s ego, there’s little suspense that the old man will make the right decision — because he can rely on his daughter Mickey (Adams), who has a lot of Gus’s expertise without his glaucoma.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Moneyball)

Mickey, named for Mantle, is a bright corporate lawyer with several of Gus’s challenges: a hierarchy that has reservations about her — because she’s a woman, and the firm’s partnership is all-male — and a beau (Peter Hermann) who thinks he and she make the perfect couple, “if you look at it on paper”; he’s the Bill James of boyfriends. Mickey has been estranged from her dad ever since she was six, when Gus lost his wife and dumped the child with a relative so he could pursue his job full-time, apparently including the fall and winter months between baseball seasons. It takes the urging of the Braves Chief of Scouts (John Goodman) to persuade Mickey that she should take a few days off from the firm and and be Gus’s handler, companion and, most important, eyes. All unofficial, mind you; in this movie’s view of baseball, there are no girl scouts.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino)

Trouble with the Curve observes every law of Hollywood predictability: all the good people must be vindicated, all those lacking in grace defeated. If the primping Gentry humiliates a young man selling confections at the game by addressing him as Peanut Boy, you can bet that this kid (Jay Galloway) will get his revenge in a last-minute call-up to the Braves’ Turner Field. And when Mickey attracts the romantic attention of Johnny “The Flame” Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), a Red Sox scout who was discovered by Gus and got to the big leagues before overwork blew his arm out, there’s little question they will form an alliance that showers benisons on them and Gus as well.

(LIST: Josh Tyrangiel on Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”)

But predictability is not disqualifying to a film that wears its artlessness on its uniform sleeve. A Gus-like throwback to an earlier kind of baseball movie, Trouble With the Curve charms by acknowledging its venerable status even as its star does. When Gus confronts a fellow hitting on Mickey at a bar, he both asserts his dominance and confesses to his limitations by growling, “Now get out of here before I have a heart attack tryin’ to kill you.” By bringing Gus literally to tears as he kneels before his wife’s grave and sings “You Are My Sunshine,” and by having him declare, “I’m just a broken-down old man” before his eventual triumph, the picture eases its star from “The Old Man and the Seat” (as The Daily Show called his dithery gig at the RNC) back to the confident Clint who virtually offered an Obama endorsement as the spokesman in the Chrysler commercial at this year’s Super Bowl.

(READ: Corliss on Eastwood’s Halftime in America commercial)

And while the bad guys in the piece are allowed few saving shadings — just casting Lillard, George Clooney’s puny rival in The Descendants, as Gus’s executive nemesis clues you that his stat-eating grin will be climactically wiped off — the actors playing decent souls get room to maneuver. Goodman and Timberlake throw a little perplexity in their playing of the most genial versions of themselves, and Adams offers a master class in behavioral naturalism; this is a performance that allows viewers to watch a character thinking and feeling, and to realize only later how subtly powerful her work has been. She makes the movie a daddy-daughter day to cherish.

(READ: Mary Pols on Amy Adams in Julie & Julia)

As for Eastwood, he’s won plenty of awards behind the camera lately for the likes of Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters to Iwo Jima, Invictus and Hereafter. But his new film is a reminder that what a Clint Eastwood movie really needs is Clint Eastwood in it. This time around he’s America with all its belligerence and flaws but with lessons still to learn and, perhaps, to teach. If the modest and moving Trouble With the Curve won’t overwhelm anybody, it’s still an engaging winner, like a junk-ball pitcher who stays in the bigs on grit and heart.