‘Trouble With the Curve” is one of the more telling demonstrations of what Clint Eastwood brings to the table as a director — precisely because he didn’t direct it. A slow-rolling, distressingly formulaic drama about an aging baseball scout (Eastwood) and his last season on the road, the film’s the debut effort by Robert Lorenz, who has served the star in various capacities (most recently producer) on almost every Eastwood film since 1995’s “The Bridges of Madison County.” This is essentially a case of the boss giving Lorenz a leg up, which is nice. So’s the movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s very good.
It’s probably most helpful to think of “Trouble” as the anti-“Moneyball” — all those crusty old men Brad Pitt railed against are the heroes of this one. Eastwood’s character, Gus, is the oldest and crustiest of them all. A scout for the Atlanta Braves since, oh, the end of the War Between the States, he can tell a great prospect from a merely good one by the sound of the player’s swing. Which is convenient, since his eyes are going.
The team’s head of scouting (a sweetly sympathetic John Goodman) is in his corner, but the sneering young assistant GM (Matthew Lillard), with his Interwebs and sabermetrics and stuff, wants to hustle Gus into retirement. The scout’s semi-estranged daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), a corporate lawyer bucking for a partnership, is talked into joining her father on the road, and it’s a tossup as to who’s most reluctant.
Baseball, apple pie, dysfunctional family relationships; of such things are modern sports movies made. Factor in a meet-cute romance between Mickey and Johnny (Justin Timberlake), one of Gus’s old finds who now scouts for the Red Sox, and the near-total predictability of “Trouble With the Curve” is complete. Audi-ences craving a return to old-fashioned values in entertainment will probably sink into this like a comfy chair; every tear and busted spring is a known quantity.
The script is by first-timer Randy Brown, but it feels as if it were spit out by one of the assistant GM’s computers, so regular are its beats and revelations. But Adams and Timberlake give the dialogue more effort than it deserves, and their scenes together are unaccountably charming. You sense they’re just happy to have the hang time with Clint, and can you blame them?
The star’s had a rough time of it lately, with that ill-advised empty-chair speech casting him in the novel role of the Republicans’ batty uncle. “Trouble With the Curve” doesn’t entirely dispel the image; Eastwood, who hasn’t acted in a movie since 2008’s “Gran Torino” (and hasn’t acted for another director since 1993’s “In the Line of Fire”) looks every one of his 82 years, and it’s both alarming and touching to hear that growl coming from his increasingly frail frame. In one of the film’s weirder moments, Lorenz uses a shot from “Dirty Harry” for a flashback sequence, and it’s almost more resonant than this small, flat-footed film can hold.
Yet that gnarly nobility still holds; even as the rest of “Trouble With the Curve” invites scorn, you believe every one of Gus’s self-defeating words and actions. Again, it’s interesting to imagine what the movie would look like if Eastwood had directed it. The script might be the same old hash, but the cinematography would be better than a TV movie, and the scenes between father and daughter would bristle with authentic hurt and conflicted affection. The current ending — a ridiculous pitcher-ex-machina sequence that only small children and their nanas will believe — would have to get rewritten. It might be a spikier, more nuanced experience altogether, less indebted to the clichés of baseball films and “On Golden Pond.” “Trouble With the Curve” is old-timer’s night at the movies, and neither Eastwood nor we are ready for that just yet.