Tough guys don’t age gracefully, but that’s only really a problem if they try to age gracefully. Sylvester Stallone and others have spent the last couple of years parading their oiled physiques through the Expendables films. While it’s hard to imagine them doing anything else, it’s equally hard to imagine Clint Eastwood ever joining them. That’s partly because Eastwood has a busy directing career to worry about, but also because he’s never tried not to grow old onscreen. Eastwood last appeared onscreen as a grizzled senior citizen in Gran Torino. Before that, he played a cop with a heart condition, a summoned-from-retirement astronaut, and other roles where the adjective “aging” usually preceded his job description. Eastwood knows he can’t keep up with the younger generation, so he’s made a theme of not keeping up. “Get out of here before I have a heart attack trying to kill you!” Eastwood’s protagonist bellows at one point in Trouble With The Curve, and he’s not kidding about either half of that sentence. Let others take their shirts off and tote guns around. Eastwood has no problem appearing onscreen with his pants hiked up to his waist, or doing scenes where he struggles to empty his bladder.
The first film Eastwood has acted in without directing since In The Line Of Fire in 1993, Trouble With The Curve is the directorial debut of Robert Lorenz, who worked for Eastwood first as an assistant director, then as producer for the last decade. The film is, unsurprisingly, Eastwood-like in many respects, but also a more relaxed, modest effort than Eastwood has allowed himself as a director in a while. Here, Eastwood plays a scout for the Atlanta Braves—an aging scout, specifically—with a reputation built on spotting talent early and bringing it up through the ranks. With no use for newfangled computers—the film can’t even bring itself to use the word “sabermetrics”—he relies on word of mouth, small-town newspapers, and, most of all, his eyes, ears, and gut. Trouble is, his gut remains effective, but his ears need a little help from a hearing aid, and his eyes are in worse shape than he’s letting anyone know.
That’s particularly problematic since young, computer-using whippersnapper Matthew Lillard would like to squeeze Eastwood out, no matter how much support Eastwood has from his old front-office pal John Goodman. And it strains Eastwood’s already-difficult relationship with daughter Amy Adams, a hard-working lawyer who’s gotten this close to a partnership. But even though it isn’t in her career’s best interest, Adams takes Goodman’s advice and follows her dad down to North Carolina, where he’s been dispatched to keep an eye on a brash slugger. He isn’t the only one there for that reason, either. Joining them is Justin Timberlake, a pitcher-turned-scout whom Eastwood shepherded up to the big leagues, only to watch him get burned out when the Braves traded him away.
The film takes great, low-key pleasure in immersing itself in the lower tiers of the baseball business, showing scouts spending long days by the sandlot and long nights swapping stories and jibes at the bar. Moneyball it isn’t, and the film likes that world so much that it arrives at a high-stakes final act almost with a sigh of obligation. Curve is, refreshingly, the rare sports movie that eschews a finale tied to a big game, though the climax is still unabashedly corny. And the unglamorous details of scouting life, with its diner food and by-the-week motor-lodge accommodations, only distracts from the poky pacing and dialogue that spells out, and repeats, the film’s central themes up to a point.
Those themes are a little more complex than what gets said in the dialogue, though. Trouble With The Curve often plays like a kids-these-days affirmation of its protagonist’s old-fashioned ways, but as much as Eastwood seems to enjoy playing cranky old coots, they’re cranky old coots who realize their time is passing, and that that isn’t always a bad thing. Just as the curmudgeon of Gran Torino came to see that his Detroit belonged to a new generation—and to people of a different background than his own—here, Eastwood’s character begins to see Adams in a different light as he takes stock of his past mistakes and takes pride in the accomplished, independent woman she’s become. (The progressive streak of the material Eastwood chooses as an actor-director is periodically at odds with his recent grumpy-old-man, chair-abusing appearance at the Republican National Convention.) Adams and Eastwood find real drama in material that, like its star, is creaky but sturdy, turning it into a study of lost opportunities and parental regret. There’s a vulnerable, bitter person beneath the feisty front Adams shows the world, and hidden depths of thoughtfulness beneath Eastwood’s crustiness, conveyed with little more than grunts and a furrowed brow. That’s the sort of dramatic shorthand available only to stars with decades of experience to back it up. In Trouble With The Curve, Eastwood plays a reminder of an older way of doing things, a professional whose likes the world won’t see again once he’s gone. The role isn’t much of a stretch.