Friday, September 28, 2012

No 'trouble' with a formula film done right

On the surface, "Trouble with the Curve" is about baseball, but while there is plenty of scenes at baseball games and the sport is discussed extensively, the film is really about relationships and reconciliation.

Clint Eastwood stars as Gus, an aging baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves whose eyesight is going. His contract is up and a young hotshot within the organization (Matthew Lillard) wants to put him out to pasture for not embracing computers and statistics. In this regard, the film is the opposite of "Moneyball," last year's film about ignoring the wisdom of baseball scouts and looking purely at the numbers.

Gus' loyal friend and colleague (John Goodman) asks Gus' daughter, Mickey (Amy Adams), to join Gus on the road as he scouts Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), a potential big league hitter with an even bigger ego. If Gus makes the wrong call it could mean his job. Gus and Mickey have a strained relationship at best and extreme communication issues.

While at games scouting Gentry, father and daughter cross paths with Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a pitcher turned scout. Gus had scouted Johnny and they have a mutual respect. Mickey begins a tentative flirtation with Johnny.

"Trouble with the Curve" is pure formula. Naturally, Gus and Mickey's time together finally helps them to communicate with each other. Of course Mickey and Johnny fall for each other. And it goes without saying that Lillard's smug character will be proven wrong for his blind trust in statistics. It is how it is all played out that makes the film so pleasurable.

Some stories are about their plots, but other stories are character driven and the plot is merely there to give the performers a platform to stand on. The baseball aspect of the story really could be replaced with anything else. It merely adds color and serves as the background issue to bring these characters together.

The film clearly has a love of baseball that sports fans will appreciate, but even those who could care less about baseball can become emotionally invested in the characters. The screenplay by first-timer Randy Brown does a nice job of developing the three central characters. There are good dialogue-driven scenes between Eastwood and Adams, Adams and Timberlake, and Eastwood and Timberlake. Their relationships feel real.

Eastwood is playing a variation on the bitter gruff, grumbling old man with a buried heart of gold that he has been doing for at least a decade. His performance here is a softer version of his work in "Gran Torino." Within his familiar persona, Eastwood finds quiet, subtle grace notes as when he touchingly talk/sings "You are My Sunshine" at his wife's grave.

Adams, a bubbly screen presence who can handle both comedy and drama, gets to show off both skills in this film. In her scenes with Eastwood she reveals the lasting hurt of years of abandonment and her desperation to reconnect with her distant father. With Timberlake she showcases her lighter side as the two trade cute banter.

Pop star turned actor Timberlake continues to prove he is a genuine actor. His range isn't huge, but he is likable and has a natural unforced quality that can't be faked. He is strongest at comedic repartee, but he is also credible in the quieter dramatic moments. He creates an easy chemistry with Adams.

Goodman takes the generic best friend role and makes it so much more than what is on the page. He has become such an expressive actor that he can say more in his body language and facial expressions than with an entire monologue.

Lillard has a standard villain role that the film's formula requires. It is a thankless role that he doesn't really do much with.

The film is cleanly directed by Robert Lorenz making his directorial debut after being Eastwood's assistant director for decades. Like Eastwood's directing, Lorenz isn't showy, but simply tells the story and gives the characters room to breathe and develop.

Anyone watching knows that everything is going to be tied up nicely by the end, but how the film does it is quite a neat trick and deeply satisfying. The conclusion reminds that even a formulaic film can still surprise.

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