“Trouble With the Curve” problematically tips its pitches

“Trouble With the Curve” stars Clint Eastwood as Gus Lobel, one of the best scouts in major league baseball for decades. Now in the twilight of his career Gus will need the help of his daughter to keep his job. Eastwood’s latest role features the actor grumbling at more inanimate objects than at any other point in his career. “Trouble With the Curve” begins with Eastwood’s character audibly coaxing his own urine into a toilet; later he sings “You Are My Sunshine” to a gravestone.

He doesn’t talk to any furniture, but he does kick a coffee table across the room. Read into that whatever statement about the current presidential administration you choose.

“Trouble” is second-rate Eastwood, existing in a parallel universe where the celebrity has been reduced to a Hallmark movie-of-the-week actor, not one of the most respected directors in Hollywood. Unlike some of his better recent acting outputs, this is a blunt, subtlety-free performance. To use a baseball metaphor – and be prepared, you’ll hear one every 12 seconds in this movie – “Trouble With the Curve” has a problem tipping its pitches.

All of that said, there’s at least one member of your family who will declare this their favorite movie of the year. It’s a Hallmark-style film, but so was “The Blind Side,” and that got nominated for a best-picture Oscar. Plus, Justin Timberlake is in this. That guy is like cinematic truffle oil. He makes everything a little bit better.

Eastwood is Gus, a famous but aging scout for the Atlanta Braves, who is so old that he drinks Schlitz and says words like “Interweb.” He’s a single father who failed in raising his commitment-phobic daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), who has one scene where she falls asleep literally spooning a legal brief. Gus’ old friend Pete (John Goodman, doing his best Wilford Brimley) persuades Mickey to travel with Gus while he scouts a prima donna high schooler. This kid is so ridiculously evil you’ll half expect him to punch out a ball boy during the home-run trot, then twirl a handlebar mustache as he crosses the plate.

Adams and Eastwood are very good actors strapped with Julia Roberts syndrome. They’re completely unsympathetic characters; we’re supposed to root for them simply because they are played by popular actors.

Things improve immeasurably when Timberlake shows up as a former Gus-approved prospect who hopes a scouting assignment leads to play-by-play work for the Boston Red Sox. Timberlake is wholly sympathetic, and his scenes with Adams make her character likable by association. Gus helps the movie’s cause by doing cool Clint Eastwood stuff, like breaking a bottle and threatening a guy in a bar.

Helmed by first time director Robert Lorenz (Lorenz has worked as assistant director on many of Eastwood’s films), “The Trouble with the Curve” is as predictable as they come, but by the film’s climax it’s hard not to get swept up in the emotion of the moment, rooting for your team to win the game. That commitment is mainly attributed to the tender emotional bond between Adams and Eastwood. Nevertheless, it is not among Eastwood’s better productions.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is sentimental. A fairy tale? Yes, it’s that too. Satisfying? Depends on the viewer. The key, I think, is the restaurant scene between Adams and Eastwood where she confronts him about how she was, and wasn’t, raised by Gus. It’s played by both actors with minimal fuss and maximum honesty. I wish the film had the guts to leave Gus’ failings be; the script takes an easier way out by hanging his actions on a long-ago incident, alluded to throughout, in eerie flashbacks recalling Eastwood’s own “Mystic River” and “Changeling.” Often a movie’s attempt to rationalize a tough character ends up softening him in untruthful ways; perhaps this is where the movie shrinks in comparison to some Eastwood’s more memorable works.

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