"Trouble With the Curve" is an absolute home run, the total package of charming romantic comedy, poignant family drama and superb acting. It's further proof that Clint Eastwood, now nearing his sixth decade onscreen, just improves with age. Unlike his old-school action-star cohorts who brand themselves "expendables" in trivial paycheck roles, Eastwood plays big three-dimensional parts in substantial, audience-pleasing films.
Eastwood gives a wonderful performance as Gus Lobel, a gruff, widowed, increasingly frail talent scout for the Atlanta Braves. He's a proud relic from a bygone age. His vision is failing, and he's a throwback in today's "Moneyball" world of laptop spreadsheets and player-performance algorithms. His instincts for the human dimensions of the game are still top-notch. His relationship with his neglected daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), a no-nonsense attorney, not so much.
When Gus' best friend (John Goodman) persuades Mickey to take a break and help Gus on a crucial recruiting trip, we can see the film's blueprint. That it plays out just as we expect in no way diminishes the satisfaction it provides.
Of course Gus and Mickey will squabble colorfully, then become a great team. Yes, the nasty professional rivals circling both dad and daughter will get a good comeuppance. Naturally handsome Boston Red Sox scout Johnny (Justin Timberlake, engaging as ever) will coax Mickey out of her career-woman shell and seal the deal with a sizzling kiss. Without being the slightest bit innovative, the film delivers just what viewers want. It is perfectly square and a thing of beauty.
As Gus and Mickey tour the motels, bars and high school ball fields of North Carolina, she gradually trades her power suits for jeans and caps. She reveals a tomboy streak and a deep nostalgia for the game they used to share. He shows an undimmed protective streak, warning a roadhouse wolf who gets fresh with his daughter, "Get out of here before I have a heart attack tryin' to kill ya."
Eastwood looks every day of 82 here as he gives what may be the best performance of his career. There's a rich vein of humor in his work, and a pinch of pathos. A scene where he converses with his wife's tombstone could be the stuff of cliché, but he invests it with extraordinary feeling. When he rises, stiff-limbed and unsteady, even a slab of granite would feel a sympathetic twinge.
The film is a charming elegy, reflecting the passing of an era in its direct storytelling and unadorned visual style. There is not a stylish or flashy frame to be seen. Instead, first-time director Robert Lorenz, an assistant director and producer on Eastwood's team for 20 years, fills his film with carefully realized big-league details and well drawn supporting characters. Randy Brown's script takes time to develop a useful subplot about Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a cocksure high school slugger with million-dollar stats but a troubling lack of heart. He's emblematic of the upstarts who populate the fringes of the film.
Eastwood's crusty old pro looks even better by comparison. We've been hearing for some time that his farewell to acting is not long off. I hope it's not true, but there could be no finer final curtain for him than this.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186