October 18, 2012
I'm not a big fan of baseball movies. Yes, I know – there are some classics. Like The Natural, with its allegory of good and evil.
And you can't ignore Field of Dreams, mostly because of its absurd but often-quoted assertion, "If you build it they will come." (Ask any entrepreneur, and he'll tell you how easily you can go broke by believing in that one.)
Then there's Moneyball, which is really about the business end of baseball.
Here's the thing about every one of these movies. They absolutely depend on the audience walking into the theater already caring about baseball.
And I don't.
But I know lots of people who do, so I sort of pretend to be them. I pretend to care. I watch, thinking, Ah, if I actually cared, I can see how this would work.
The father-son thing in Field of Dreams. Very sweet. Except my father and I got along fine, and I have no memory of ever playing catch. He built stuff and he took pictures. He taught classes and graded papers and let me help and talked about educational theory with me. He didn't throw things or catch them.
So my memories of my childhood relationship with my dad have more to do with jigsaws, darkrooms, glue, sign-painting, test papers and pretty much anything that needed building, fixing, putting-together or taking-apart.
Where's the movie for me?
People like me have to make do with movies that deal with the "standard" childhood – the one with baseball in it.
Maybe that's one reason I love Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. Maybe Douglas Spaulding played pickup games of softball – if he did, I blotted them out of my memory. Mostly he ran around the neighborhood with his friends, talking to old people, climbing fences, that sort of thing. Things I did.
They don't make movies about my childhood.
So here comes Trouble with the Curve, another movie about baseball. But I recognize that baseball has resonances with regular people. And I do know the rules; I did play, badly, as a kid.
This movie is "anti-Moneyball meets female-Field of Dreams." A troubled father-daughter relationship, with childhood baseball as the only healing connection. Plus an attempt to show how inadequate it is to choose a team by running the numbers.
Clint Eastwood plays Gus, an aging baseball scout who's going blind but can still magically hear whether a player can hit a well-thrown curveball. (Yeah, right.)
Amy Adams plays his grown-up daughter Mickey, who spent about six years of her childhood going everywhere with her dad while he scouted various players. But her dad abandoned her twice. Once, soon after her mom died, he sent her to live with an uncle for a year. Then came the baseball years. Following which he sent her off to boarding school and paid for her to go to law school.
So now she's up for a partnership, in competition with a cutthroat lawyer. Only Pete Klein (John Goodman), Gus's boss and a good friend, tells her that her dad is fighting to keep his job and would she please go look out for him.
Even though she's permanently (and childishly) mad at her father, she goes, trying to do her work on an important case while also attending the games with Dad. They're trying to decide whether or not their team should use a top draft pick to go for a minor league hitting star, Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill).
Look at the title, and you've got the maguffin: Gus can hear (and Mickey can see) that Bo has "trouble with the curve"; the numbers don't show the problem because in the minors, he isn't up against any first-rate pitchers.
Excuse me, but after more than a century of Major League Baseball, hasn't anybody figured out yet that you don't know anything about a minor league hitter until he's been put up against major league pitching? This has to come as a surprise to everybody except one aging scout?
Never mind. Stories are always about the superguy who sees what nobody else can see. And sometimes in real life there really are people like that. But when you think about it, every baseball movie is about the guy who can do or see what nobody else can do or see. Cool. I'll buy it.
Along the way, Mickey meets Johnny (Justin Timberlake), an ex-pitcher whom her dad once recruited. But he got traded away to a team that let him blow out his arm and his career ended. Now he's trying to get up a career as a scout.
Add to this a superb supporting cast – half the aging character actors in Hollywood do a great job in tiny but important roles. George Wyner, Bob Gunton, Robert Patrick; even Matthew Lillard, who survived Scooby Doo and is very good in this movie as the jerk who's trying to play moneyball.
And, partly because the cast is so very, very good, this by-the-numbers movie works. It's not a great movie, but it's enjoyable and we were never bored, never tempted to leave. For a baseball movie, that's actually pretty good.
But even as we watched it, we were aware of the problems. There were really two big ones.
First was the note-card script. It's what panicky scriptwriters do when they make the mistake of believing the crap they learned in film school. They lay out the whole movie on note cards. All the plot points. All the big reveals.
This is the scene where we find out why Mickey is so mad at her father. This is the scene where he refuses to tell her. Here's the scene where, for no particular reason, he finally decides to tell her. We need a complication, so she blows off his explanation and is still mad.
The writer spent months juggling those cards around. But when the order was decided on, he forgot to write a script. He just wrote the minimal speeches to cover the points on the card.
Even the love scene by the lake feels like just another note card. First Mickey resists, then she doesn't. What changed in between? Nothing. The note card says, Now she falls for him. So that's what happens in the scene.
Good acting can cover up a lot of this kind of writing. (In Titanic, for instance, that's all James Cameron bothered with – all he cared about, apparently, was the effects. So the scenes are completely empty – despite the fact that Cameron knows how to write a good scene.)
Since Trouble with the Curve has such a terrific cast, most of this hollowness is, in fact, smoothed over.
Except for the second big problem with the movie: Amy Adams.
Amy Adams is a terrific actress ... usually. She was great in Enchanted, delightful in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and ... she's kind of terrible in this movie.
Here's why: She completely misunderstood what her character was supposed to be and do in this movie.
Admittedly, she had little help from the script. But one thing was obvious: She was supposed to be a tough, ambitious lawyer and an angry daughter. Through the course of the movie, she's supposed to break herself against the rock of her father's cold distance, while warming and softening because of her growing relationship with the Justin Timberlake character.
That means that at the beginning, Adams had the challenge of making a hard-edged character likeable....continued on page 2