Trouble With the Curve


Trouble With the Curve

Amy Adams discovers that Clint Eastwood is very sensitive about “empty chair” jokes.

(2012) Drama (Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Robert Patrick, Matthew Lillard, Joe Massingill, Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross, Raymond Anthony Thomas, George Wyner, Bob Gunton, Jack Gilpin, Clifton Guterman, Scott Eastwood, Jay Galloway. Directed by Robert Lorenz

 

Baseball is a game of timing. The batter has to time his swing just so to connect and hit it out of the park. The runner has to start his sprint and just the right time to successfully steal the base. The outfielder has to time his jump to put himself in a position to catch the ball. And the pitcher has to know when the right time to throw that nasty fastball down the middle is or else he’ll be watching the ball exit the playing field.

Life is all about timing too. Nobody know that better than Gus Lobel (Eastwood). A longtime scout for the Atlanta Braves, he was responsible for signing some of the most important players in the history of the franchise. He’s an anachronism though; whereas in the post-Moneyball era clubs have come to rely on computers and statistics, Gus is all about instincts and intangibles. He can tell more about a player from the sound of their bat connecting to the ball than most scouts can from an entire laptop full of statistics and computer analyses. The Braves have the number two pick in the upcoming draft and they’re interested in a player named Bo Gentry (Massingill). They send Gus to check him out.

But that timing is actually bad. Gus is developing macular degeneration and isn’t seeing as well. His friend (and chief of scouting) Pete Klein (Goodman) recognizes that something is wrong. Worried for his friend and knowing that Gus’ contract is up in three months which the general manager Vince (Patrick) hasn’t decided to re-sign him, and knowing that Philip Sanderson (Lillard), an ambitious and ruthless scout wants Gus gone, calls Gus’ daughter Mickey (Adams).

Mickey is also in the midst of some bad timing. She’s a lawyer whose relationship with her dad has been chilly for some time, which is more or less how Gus wants it. She’s also ambitious and driven, bucking to be the first female partner in the firm and the youngest partner ever. She’s working on an important case for the firm and winning it would be her key to having her name on the door.

Pete wants her to go down to North Carolina and keep an eye on the old man. She’s reluctant to do it – and her proud and cantankerous dad doesn’t want her to do it. In true Hollywood fashion, that’s exactly what she does.

At first the two are back in their usual patterns of behavior. Then into the mix comes Johnny Flanagan (Timberlake), a pitcher that Gus once signed who had a promising career until he blew his arm out. Now he’s scouting for the Red Sox, hoping to land a job in their broadcast booth next season. He too is there to see Gentry and determine whether he’s worthy of the first pick in the draft.

He gets googly eyed for Mickey pretty much from moment one but she’s just out of a relationship with a fellow lawyer (Guterman) that left her feeling as if she might be emotionally closed off after all. However it doesn’t take long for Flanagan’s charm to work on her and the two begin to get closer.

However, Gus has his doubts about the arrogant, self-absorbed Gentry who certainly can hit them out of the park. Nothing the stats and his direct observation tell him that there’s anything other than big time endorsement deals and multi-million dollar contracts in Gentry’s future – other than his gut. While Gus’ baseball instincts aren’t in question, he doesn’t seem to know how to relate to his daughter and she blames him for abandoning her twice.

This is not so much a movie about baseball except metaphorically and baseball has always worked superbly well as a metaphor. This is first and foremost a movie about relationships. It is also a movie about communication – and  movie about timing, yes.

Eastwood has made an art out of playing the cantankerous old man and he does a pretty solid job of it here. He came out of retirement (as an actor) to do this for a friend and colleague when some space opened up on his directing schedule when Beyonce Knowles’ pregnancy put the planned remake of A Star is Born into turnaround. Although Eastwood isn’t saying it this time, there’s a good chance this is his final film as an actor so that accounts for something.

Adams is one of the most likable actresses in Hollywood. She’s very much the girl next door type, although she can be smoldering and sex when she needs to be (as she is in a lake swimming scene). She has some good chemistry with both Timberlake and Eastwood. I have to admit that she’s been one of my favorites for several years now.

Goodman, Patrick and Lillard are solid character performances and Goodman, who once played Babe Ruth on the silver screen, makes a fine baseball man. Lillard is a fine actor as well – no reflection on him – but his character is kind of cliché in nearly every way. I don’t think the character needed to be drawn quite the same way; he could have been a passionate believer in computers as a tool for evaluating baseball talent without being quite such a d-bag. I think the movie would have worked better with a more sympathetic antagonist.

There are some real emotional scenes to deal with here, most of which having to do with the things that caused Gus to be so closed off and, well, scared to put it bluntly. That these things affected his relationship with his daughter is a pleasant surprise. These scenes and others that deal with the way they relate to each other are the best in the movie. The presence of Eastwood and Adams doesn’t hurt either, but while the writing is flawed, the basic premise is solid and the movie works overall. Definitely this is not one just for baseball fans or geriatrics.

REASONS TO GO: Eastwood is always engaging and Adams makes a nice foil for him. Baseball sequences are good. Some nice dialogue and character development.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Would have been better without a generic antagonist.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can get salty; there are some sexual references and some of the themes are pretty heavy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eastwood, who had announced that the 2008 film Gran Torino would be his last on-camera appearance came out of acting retirement to star in long-time producing partner Lorenz’ first film as a director.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bull Durham

ATLANTA BRAVES LOVERS: The team Gus works for is the Braves;  the walls of the Braves offices (and Gus’ home) are decorated with pictures of their greatest players going back to their days as the Milwaukee Braves.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ong Bak 2

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A Serious Man


A Serious Man

You may think you're on top of the world, but you've still got to fix the antenna.

(2009) Dramedy (Focus) Michael Stuhlbarg, Fred Melamed, Richard Kind, Adam Arkin, Sari Lennick, Aaron Wolf, Jessica McManus, Alan Mandell, George Wyner, Michael Lerner, David Kang. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

There comes a time in all of our lives in which our suffering seems greatly magnified. We all experience the dark winter of our souls at some time or another. It’s enough to make even the least devout look heavenward and wonder why. Not all of us get to be Job, but most of us share in his troubles.

I’m sure Professor Larry Gopnik (Stuhlbarg) would tend to agree with that. He’s a middle aged professor of physics, living a comfortable existence in a middle class subdivision in a Minneapolis suburb in the late 60s. He has applied for tenure and has been assured that there is no reason he shouldn’t get it. His son Danny (Wolf)  is about to undergo his bar mitzvah.

When we feel the weave of our lives is at its strongest is usually when it unravels. His wife Judith (Lennick) wants a divorce. She no longer can take the lack of inertia in Larry’s life and has taken up with his best friend, Sy Ableman (Melamed). Personally, I think if your best friend is named Sy Ableman you’ve got problems to begin with.

His son is having difficulties concentrating in class and has been experimenting with reefer. His daughter Sarah (McManus) is stealing money to save for a nose job. His ne’er-do-well brother-in-law Arthur (Kind) has taken up residence on his couch (when Sy and Judith urge him to leave their home and take up in a local motel, Arthur comes along with him as a sort of hideous luggage set Larry can’t get rid of) with a variety of ailments, including a cyst in need of drainage. Arthur believes he is close to uncovering the secret of the universe which apparently has to do with surviving without working.

A Korean student (Kang) who has clearly failed a test offers a bribe which turns into a means of blackmail. Larry’s oversexed neighbor who sunbathes in the nude has become not so much a sexual fantasy so much as a sexual nightmare that further emasculates him. To top it all off, the tenure which seemed to be a sure thing is now in jeopardy due to anonymous libelous letters that urge the university regents not to grant Larry tenure. It’s enough to make Larry go scrambling first for the shrink, then to the rabbis. Yes, plural.

The Coen Brothers are some of the most gifted filmmakers of the past 20 years, with a string of movies that aren’t just well-made but are among my favorites. Certainly when you go down the list of their films – Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men – and that’s just a partial list, there’s bound to be at least one or two that you’re fond of as well.

Here, the Coens explore their own inner Jewishness and certainly their own background as they were raised in a similar suburb of Minneapolis during the same time period here. I’m not sure if Aaron is a surrogate for the brothers but he might very well be.

I’ve always admired the Coens for their quirky sensibility and their offbeat humor and both qualities are in evidence here, to even greater effect. Those who prefer their storytelling done straight up will probably find the Coens an unpleasant taste, too Dr. Pepper in a world of colas.

This is a movie to my mind that is about the nature of suffering and the sheer randomness of it. It is appropriate that this is set in a Jewish background for if any ethnic group knows suffering, it’s them. There is plenty of sardonic humor but also a sense of bewilderment as if nobody involved with the movie can quite believe what’s going on in it.

Stuhlbarg, who has mostly been a stage actor throughout his career, does an extremely solid job here in what is essentially his first motion picture lead role. He captures the sense of being adrift on a sea of troubles with nothing but a life preserver to keep him afloat. Mostly he is surrounded by character actors whose names you may or may not recognize but whose faces you’ll immediately know.

There is a whole lot of kvetching in the movie, perhaps more than is necessary but then I’m just a goyim and I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to get it. That’s all right, too. This isn’t essential to the Coen Brothers catalogue in the sense of entertainment, but if you really want to get to know the filmmakers, I suspect this will be the film that comes closest to allowing you in. As Roger Ebert said, this is clearly a labor of love and one that would only be allowed to be made by someone who has won an Oscar. The movie is filled with parables that don’t really clarify anything but then, most parables were meant to be mysterious anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: While offbeat, Coen Brothers movies tend to be well-made and interesting, and this one is no exception. Stuhlbarg, a relative unknown, gives a solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This is very rooted in its Jewishness, which may make certain parts of the movie difficult to follow or relate to for non-Jews. The movie also meanders a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language, a certain amount of sexuality and even a bit of brief nudity. Some of the thematic elements will go zooming over the heads of younger teens and the less mature.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filming in Bangkok during the September 19, 2006 coup d’état. The armory department claims they fired the only shots of the coup. Filming was only interrupted for six hours.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an educational tool that helps with the Yiddish and Hebrew phrases that are peppered throughout the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $31.4M on an unreported production budget; given what appear to be a pretty meager budget, I’d say the movie was probably a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Pink Panther 2