Review: Trouble With the Curve & Knuckleball!
Baseball can make for some great, enduring cinematic material, whether as the primary subject (Eight Men Out), an entertaining backdrop (Bull Durham), or for exploring the mythology of a game ingrained in our country’s being (The Natural). We will never lack for films about baseball, and two very different reasons for that fact are demonstrated by Robert Lorenz’s comedy Trouble With the Curve and Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball!.
Trouble With the Curve
Trouble With the Curve stars Clint Eastwood as Gus, an old-school and, frankly, just plain old baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves who’s butting his head against the numbers analysis and statistic overrun of the grand old game by the next generation of baseball executives. Gus is the kind of guy still traveling the backwoods amateur and minor league circuits, operating on sight, sound, feel, and what he can pick up from the local newspapers, as opposed to the wealth of statistical information available on that newfangled internet. He personifies the anti-Moneyball argument. (In fact, you could imagine Eastwood’s character planted on his front lawn, shaking a fist at Brad Pitt’s character from that film.) Through years of experience, he has had an unerring eye—that is, until those eyes start to fail him. It’s bad timing because there is a hot prospect that needs his attention right as he’s feeling pressure from an arrogant young player development exec (Matthew Lilliard); plus, his contract with the team is up for renewal.
Naturally, Gus has an estranged lawyer daughter (Amy Adams) who conveniently shares her dad’s feel for the game, and has plenty of abandonment issues to be worked out with him and a big job promotion on the line just as he needs her help. Throw in Justin Timberlake as a former big league prospect that the old man once scouted, who’s now trying to make his name as a scout himself on the trail of the same player. So the old man fights with his faltering eyesight, and fights with his daughter and the emotional scars of the past, while the daughter gets romanced by the new guy. And if all goes according to plan, it will all work out in the end and a good time will be had by all.
Trouble With the Curve is a film built for a very specific audience that doesn’t have any desire to be challenged by anything more complicated than waiting for the moment when the old cuss can show them whippersnappers a thing or two, and maybe begrudgingly learn a lesson himself in the process. Dad and daughter will share a hug, and daughter, and charming good guy suitor can finally admit they’re in love and score a home run with a kiss. The good news is that Eastwood does his thing to perfection, Adams provides the spunky cuteness, and Timberlake couldn’t scrub his eager charm off with a Brillo pad if he tried. They are pros of the first order, and, framed by the romanticism of the game, they deliver. The not-so-good news for those of us that weren’t born during the Great Depression or don’t respond favorably to the words Tea and Party, is that your eye sockets could possibly get worn out from the continual eye-rolling inspired by the older-than-Eastwood jokes, dramatic setups, and thematic tropes. Regardless, the harmless affability of the film ensures that you won’t be able to escape it on TV in about a year. Guaranteed, it will be playing on a constant loop on a cable channel near you.
Stern and Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball! offers a prime example of why we can’t get this game out of our system. Essentially a matched portrait of the Boston Red Sox’s Tim Wakefield and the New York Mets’ R.A. Dickey, the film follows the journey of one man (Wakefield) as he reaches the end of the line and looks back on the long and winding road that got him there, and of a second man (Dickey) who is being handed the baton as the next great knuckleball pitcher in the game.
The charm of the film is that the relatively small fraternity of knuckleball pitchers is clearly a very supportive group. Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, and others are omnipresent throughout the lives of both Wakefield and Dickey. Like unofficial grandfathers or uncles, these mentors are ever-ready to lend a hand or just a supportive ear to the next generation of guys trying to make a living by confounding batters and often their own managers through the use of a pitch that no one can control—oftentimes, including the pitcher throwing it.
Knuckleball! is more than enjoyable if you are a fan of the game of baseball. And while it wouldn’t be an obvious win for the uninitiated, Wakefield and Dickey do not make it difficult for the viewer to cheer for them from the comfort of a movie theater, instead of the bleachers.