Upon seeing the trailer for Trouble With the Curve, a friend of mine joked that it looked like Clint Eastwood was so pissed off by Moneyball’s take on America’s pastime as a numbers-driven venture that he took to the cameras to refute it. As it turns out, that’s not too far from the truth. The film’s primary subplot revolves around the rivalry between the aging and grizzled Gus (Eastwood) and the young, smirking Phillip (Matthew Lillard) – two scouts vying for position within the Atlanta Braves. Phillip relies on computers and algorithms to track stats, scoffing at the idea of actually going out to watch prospects play. Gus has an early speech to his friend and supervisor Pete (John Goodman, in a pleasant but thankless role) decrying the inability of computers to know a player’s instincts, emotional needs, and so forth.
Gus’ position is familiar and comforting cinematic territory, but it is of course mostly bunk. Instincs and all the other subjective strengths players bring to the game do, in fact, implicitly reveal themselves in the game’s numbers and stats. And Gus’ climactic discovery near the film’s end is certainly something a good statistician could’ve spotted with a computer, assuming they had the necessary data. In fact, a huge part of being a good number cruncher is knowing when you have the data to back up a particular conclusion, and when you don’t. Contra Trouble With the Curve’s thesis, Phillip’s real problem isn’t that he relies on computers. It’s that he’s a moron.
But never mind all that. The meat of this story is Gus’ relationship with his daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), who lived most of her life with a relative after her mother died. Mickey has since fashioned herself into a capable lawyer, though she hides her love of baseball from her friends and coworkers. She still harbors deep wounds over her father’s abandonment. But then she finds out from Pete and Gus’ doctor that her father’s eyesight is going, and decides to track him down in North Carolina where Gus is on one last scouting expedition.
The first half of Trouble With the Curve is somewhat weak. Director Robert Lorenz’s touch is too straightforward and workmanlike to get through the exposition without some boredom. But the second half livens up considerably as the characters are shoved into the confines of small rural hotels, dive bars, and minor league ball parks, and finally forced to grapple with one another. In a nice touch, Mickey becomes her father’s eyes on his scouting expeditions, and demonstrates a feel for the game to rival Gus’ own. The arrival of Justin Timberlake as Johnny, a scout for another team, also helps. Timberlake once again demonstrates his worth as an actor by taking a relatively shallow and utilitarian role – scripted to force the other characters out of their comfort zones – and fleshing it out into a believably rambunctious human being.
Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams are enjoyable to watch as always. Whatever his foibles at the recent Republican Convention, Eastwood demonstrates his performer’s chops and then some with a scene visiting his wife’s grave. I cannot imagine any movie not being improved by Adams’ presence, and that’s certainly true here. Her performance is probably the best of the lot. The script by apparent newcomer Randy Brown isn’t great but it isn’t terrible — the third act crisis relies on the usually silly and illogical character choices, but it slips up on you subtlety enough. And Adams brings a gentle but genuine pathos to its unfolding.
Lorenz isn’t up to his actors’ level, unfortunately. Like Eastwood, Lorenz is a yeoman visual director with a supreme lack of irony or subtext, but he doesn’t rise to Eastwood’s perception and artistry. And between Amy’s emotional isolation and Gus relentless antagonism, Trouble With the Curve actually goes kind of far in indulging their childishness. It relies too breezily on the assumption that Gus’ orneriness will come off to the audience as endearing rather than tiresome. And Mickey’s boyfriend may be a stiff, but his desire to move the relationship into “official” territory is certainly understandable. Mickey’s repetition that you “can’t put this kind of thing on paper” carries less weight than the film thinks it does. That line is something of a running theme here, and an explanation for both Gus and Mickey’s behavior, which of course are revealed to have sympathetic roots by the end. This works to a degree, since we’re talking about the mutual wounds of a father and daughter. And since Mickey’s childishness in particular is also my own, I can’t say I object to the indulgence too strongly. But it’s still indulgence, and gets kind of annoying.
In the end, Moneyball is the better movie, because it knows its vision of baseball as dictated by impersonal mathematical forces is a depressing one and is willing to drill down into what that means. It should be no surprise that Eastwood, a libertarianish economic conservative, has participated in a movie that recoils from that vision. Economic conservatism, with its focus on individual responsibility and agency, does not gel well at all with the idea that our lives are determined by structural forces beyond our control. (This is largely why conservatism, as a worldview, is wrong.) So of course Trouble With the Curve’s world turns out to ultimately be a just one: relationships are repaired, the noble are rewarded, the villainous are punished, the scales are balanced.
Moneyball had far more bravery. Rather than Gus’ stand-up working class white guy proving that the classic American virtues still win, Billy Bean is an existential bomb thrower. Bitter over his own unwise selection by a talent scout, which pushed him to forgo a college education and dedicate himself to a game he didn’t have the chops for, Bean sets out to slap the Gus’ of the world with the hard truth that chance and cold math rule our lives. And Moneyball’s narrative sticks to that steely vision: The Oakland A’s wildly outperform expectations but ultimately still lose, and Billy Bean gets his opening to the big time but tuns it down out of loyalty to the very baseball romanticism he has done so much to undermine.