I began watching "Trouble With the Curve" in my hotel room the other day with these three certainties:
I love baseball.
Clint Eastwood made "Unforgiven," which is one of my 10 favorite movies.
I love Amy Adams.
I came out of "Trouble with the Curve" facing only one certainty:
Justin Timberlake was, by far, my favorite character. Justin Bleepin' Timberlake.
In other words, "Trouble with the Curve" was a very confusing movie experience.
I suppose I knew, going in, that it would be a lousy movie. Lots of people had told me that. The trailer had told me that. The reviews I'd read had told me that. My expectation was very, very low. On the movie plus-minus scale, I came in expecting, at best, a 2-star movie, and I was fully braced for a 1 star.
Instead, I got a movie that doesn't really fit anywhere on the Movie Plus-Minus scale. Oh, as a movie, it's probably a 1 or 1.5 star -- harmless drivel, ridiculous plot turns, absurd dialogue and the fun of seeing a few recognizable actors like John Goodman and the actor who played both the spitballer in "Major League: and Dan Devine in "Rudy."
But the baseball … well, I'll get back to that.
The plot -- and there will be all sorts of "spoilers" in here, so stop if you want to see this movie, though I will say this movie seems kind of spoiler proof since you see everything coming long before it arrives -- the plot is built around an old scout named Clint Eastwood who is played by Clint Eastwood and looks just like Clint Eastwood. I guess the guy's name in the movie wasn't Clint Eastwood, it was something else, but there is literally not one second when you don't think of him as Clint Eastwood.
The movie begins with him trying to pee, and you think: "Hey look, Clint Eastwood is trying to pee." It's like that throughout. Hey Clint Eastwood is eating a hot dog! Hey, Clint Eastwood is breaking a bottle!
Actually, the opening scene is not of Clint Eastwood peeing but instead of a horse galloping. Don't ask.
I imagine everything I'm about to write you've already read somewhere ... but I'll write it anyway. Eastwood portrays the scout who has signed every single good Atlanta Braves player ever. Ralph Garr. Dale Murphy. Tom Glavine. Chipper Jones. Andruw Jones. Jair Jurrjens. You kind of had to wonder why the Braves even had a scouting department. Anyway, Eastwood is getting old and is beginning to lose his eyesight, but he's still beating the bushes because he's a baseball genius and also he doesn't know what else to do with his life.
Now, the one thing about this movie I knew going in was that it was supposed to be an attack on Moneyball -- a crotchety-old-scout attack on the people who don't watch baseball, don't love baseball, don't appreciate the little things in baseball but instead look merely at soulless numbers on insipid computers. To accomplish this, the casting director searched the nation for the most obviously unlikeable person in America to play the baseball analytics guy.*
*Unfortunately, the guy who played the husband on those commercials complaining about conflicts when trying to record two cable shows at once was not available.
So they got this other really unlikable guy -- sort of a Michael Keaton meets Chucky -- who immediately demonstrates his statistical chops by talking about a guy with a .350 batting average in Class AA.
Those computer nerds with their newfangled batting averages!
Eastwood has no use for computers … or people who use them … or people who have heard of them … or people … or batting averages … or talking … or coffee tables that get in his way. He likes eating pizza for breakfast. I think that pretty much sums him up. He's also the prototypical "lousy father … but with a secret reason."
His daughter is the normally wonderful Amy Adams, who plays a workaholic young lawyer about to be named partner except that she is about to find out what "really matters in life: and she will find out (of course) by skinny-dipping with her clothes on.
Justin Timberlake is the "love interest," a one-time, can't-miss prospect who hurt his arm but loves the game so much he has decided he wants to be a baseball broadcaster.” He realizes that the best way to achieve this lofty goal of being a baseball broadcaster is to begin scouting for the Boston Red Sox. Obviously. It's how all the great ones started.
I have to say, though, I actually found Timberlake's recall of the Bernie Carbo home run in the 1975 World Series to be relatively charming and fun. By "relatively," I mean relative to the rest of the movie, which was not charming or fun in the least.
No, the rest of the movie was astonishingly dumb, just like everyone had told me it would be. Oh yeah, the plot. Let me explain -- no, it is too much, let me sum up: Eastwood, as the legendary scout, is supposed to keep an eye on the No. 1 prospect in the draft, but he is losing his eyesight, so that's a bit of a problem.
A problem solved by his daughter, Amy Adams! She is asked by the Braves scouting director, who looks like John Goodman, to go be with her ailing father on scouting trips even though she is preparing for the case that would get her the partnership she has long wanted. So, that's all pretty believable.
The good news is that Adams apparently has found time in her workaholic life to follow baseball very, very closely, and even more fortunately, she spent enough time with her absentee father to become a scouting savant herself. She becomes his eyes. Eastwood's Braves have the second pick in the draft and they're eying this super-prospect.
One thing, though: The Red Sox have the first pick and so Boston has sent brand new employee Justin Timberlake as the only person to scout because the No. 1 prospect in America because … well ... just go with it.
TWTC makes clear right away that this No. 1 prospect is a jerk by having him say a couple of jerky things, but none of the scouts ever seem to talk to him so they are either unaware of his attitude or they don't care. What Eastwood will find almost at the very end of the movie is that the prospect can't hit a curveball, something he would have known earlier had he been aware of the title of the movie.
Despite this seemingly fatal flaw of not being able to hit the curve, the nerd assistant GM wants this kid badly because of his computer, or something, and so he convinces the Braves GM to draft him, if available. And, sure enough, the kid becomes available because Eastwood convinces Justin Timberlake to tell his bosses to pass on the player, which is one of the most astonishing bits of collusion ever captured on screen.
The Red Sox pass on the prospect, and the Braves snag him over Eastwood's protestations, Timberlake feels like he was duped, which is bad because Amy Adams has now realized that she loves him after skinny dipping with him with their clothes on. So you would think this movie has hit peak dumbness.
No. At this point the movie does what only the premier dumb movies do -- it takes what had been an entirely implausible premise and quadruples it by involving a phenom pitcher who happens to be playing catch outside of Amy Adams hotel window. No. Really. That’s what happens.
She realizes this is actually the best prospect in America. And this leads to a Whammer-Roy Hobbs like contest that the Braves apparently set up to humiliate the No. 2 pick in the draft in front of their own media and organization. The computer-toting GM is fired, Timberlake somehow figures out his true feelings. Eastwood himself rode off into the sunset on a bus.
Apparently nobody in the Braves organization ever works with their No. 1 draft pick on curveball recognition.
There are also a few prostate jokes and the least funny scout banter I have ever heard.
But, hey, implausible and mindless movies are a part of Hollywood, a big part, and I didn't really care about any of that. Make it unrealistic. Make it stupid. Make it pointless. I don't mind spending a mindless 90 minutes now and again.
What I did mind and did not expect was this: I have never seen a movie that was so NEEDLESSLY dumb about baseball. Sure, all baseball movies, even the best, have their flaws and bizarre inconsistencies -- Roy Hobbs hitting a walk-off homer on the road, Shoeless Joe Jackson throwing left-handed but batting right-handed and so on. But the thing that made TWTC so amazing was that it basically got nothing right -- and there was no reason for it. It would be like making Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Round The World in the third inning. Why do it? The things they got wrong didn't make the movie any more tangible to non-baseball fans. They didn't make the movie more entertaining. They didn't improve the story in the slightest. They could have made a thoroughly ridiculous movie with the same ridiculous plot and actually gotten some of the baseball right.
The nerd assistant GM. Why would they have him quoting batting average? I mean, if you are trying to make fun of the nerd GM in the first place, the WHOLE POINT of it is to make him use these goofy-sounding acronym stats like VORP or xFIP -- I mean, how could you leave that out of the movie? I'm not saying I would find it funny to hear Eastwood say,"VORP? What the hell is VORP? That sounds like the sound I made last night after dinner." I am saying if you are making a movie about statistical nerds trying to take over baseball, you kind of defeat your whole purpose when you don't actually make him a statistical nerd trying to take over baseball.
The whole story hinges on the idea that organizations would base their entire decision of a first-round pick on the perspective of ONE SCOUT (in the case of the Red Sox organization one scout who apparently has never scouted a single game in his life). You don't have to be a baseball fan to wonder, "Wait, wouldn’t the top pick in the draft require a nice-szed financial investment? Why won't John Goodman get his butt out of the office and go see the player himself?"
At one point the nerd assistant GM sends a "spy" to check out the player behind Eastwood's back. Forgetting for a moment the sheer inanity of this — shouldn't you PROMOTE the kid for wanting a second opinion — the whole point of this moves goes against the premise, no? I mean, this guy's a computer geek who only cares about his computer and numbers and doesn't care what the player looks like. So why would he send someone to actually see the player? Does this make any sense at all? My head hurts.
A small but, I think, striking point: Everyone keeps referring to this prospect as potentially "the next Albert Pujols." They must say that three or four times in the movie. Why Pujols? The reason I ask is, as everyone in baseball knows, Pujols is precisely the argument AGAINST scouts, who whiffed on him 13 different ways (he went in the 13th round). If someone had been going solely on stats, they might have actually taken Pujols earlier. TWTC couldn't have picked one of the countless players the scouts got right? Mickey Mantle? Ken Griffey? Somebody? Anybody?
TWTC decided, for reasons unknown, to cast a stunningly unathletic person in the role of the prospect. I mean, this guy's a chunk. I have absolutely no idea why they did this. Why would they not have cast a tall athletic switch-hitter with speed and grace in the role? I mean, this was a pretty big budget movie -- Eastwood, Adams, Timberlake -- they couldn't find a single person who looked like a great ballplayer? When the assistant GM later shouts that this guy could be a "five-tool player" it was so laughably dumb to anyone who actually knows what "five tools" means that I wondered if anybody -- ANYBODY -- had actually seen a baseball game before the filming started.
At one point the assistant GM talks about wanting to trade draft picks so he could get the No. 1 selection. You cannot trade draft picks in baseball. This isn't an especially well-known rule, but baseball fans know it -- so why would you have that line in the movie? Especially because the BETTER line would be something like, "Man, I want this guy so bad, I'd trade up if baseball would just let us." That line is accurate and actually HELPS the plot.
When the amazing left-handed pitcher happens to be playing catch right outside Amy Adams hotel -- he had sold peanuts at the big prospect's high school games -- Adams promptly puts on catching gear and catches him for a few pitches.
Let's stop for a minute because this one is on a different level of stupid. Let's say that Amy Adams, for various bizarre reasons that don't immediately come to mind, really knew how to catch top-level pitching. I do not have a single non-playing friend in baseball who I would have any confidence in doing this, but let's just say that during travels with her father, for some impossible to understand reason, she learned how to catch 95 mph fastballs and staggering curveballs.
OK, even if that was true, we know from the movie that she has been a workaholic lawyer for at least seven years, working weekends, so it does not seem likely that she has been out catching big-league prospects. We also know she has been estranged from her father, so she did not really have access to big-league prospects. We also know … well, forget it, we know how patently ridiculous it is for her to put on catching gear and catch the guy.
But here's the biggest question: Why do it? Why put that in the movie? Adams' baseball credentials have long been verified (she knew everyone in the Frank Robinson trade). Why could she not just watch the guy pitch, you know, the way scouts do, and determine from the side that he was a young Sandy Koufax? Why would you add this ludicrous scene?
At the end of the movie, the prospect is in the batting cage hitting batting practice home runs -- this is how we end up with the scene where he faces the lefty pitcher Amy Adams found. And I realize this is obscure but I found myself wondering: How did the team get the No. 1 pick -- especially someone with this kid's attitude and his father's greed -- signed so quickly and into a batting cage? I realize that this was necessary to advance the matchup with the kid who sold peanuts, but that plot twist is so stupid anyway I remain baffled.
At some point, the evil nerd assistant GM shouts incredulously in the draft room something like this: "We're going to base our No. 1 pick on a scout who can't see and his lawyer daughter? Are we crazy?" It was, without question, the most baseball-savvy question of the entire movie.
At some point, Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake start clogging. This is not a baseball issue, but it's so monumentally stupid that it had to be mentioned. "What's are they doing?" Timberlake asks, "That's clogging" Amy Adams says. I doubt there has been a more stupid exchange in a movie since the famous Padame-Anakin thing from one of the Star Wars prequel fiascos:
Padame: We used to lie in the sand and let the sun dry us and try to guess the names of the birds singing.
Anakin: I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is smooth and soft.
Here, finally, is my biggest beef with Trouble With The Curve: Nobody in this movie got what makes scouts great in the first place.
In so, so, so many ways TWTC does a much greater disservice to scouts than it does to the stat people. Heck, it merely makes stats-people into unrecognizably cartoonish figures who hate baseball but want to work in it so they can take over the world with their baffling "batting average" statistics. Big deal.
But scouts … this movie was supposed to celebrate them. Instead, it makes them grumpy and unfunny old men* who have some sort of weird super-power ability to hear drifting hands. This is exactly the stale depiction of scouts that Moneyball did such a good job of lampooning in the first place.
*I cannot overemphasize how stupid the scout exchanges were. At one point, they were apparently trying to wind up one of the old scouts by saying that Ice Cube is a better actor than Robert DeNiro. No. Really. I've been around scouts banter many, many times in my life, and I have never once heard anything that stupid or stale in my life. They could have gone out to dinner with any three scouts, written down what they said VERBATIM, and it would have been funnier than that.
Scouts are an integral part of baseball. And you would think a movie ABOUT scouts would at least get at why. It doesn't. I'll give you just one point: For unknown reasons, TWTC decided to make the prospect utterly obnoxious and his father a greedy jerk and the high school coach a win-at-all cost kind of loser. They did all these things as side effects -- I can only imagine this was done so that the audience would root against the prospect, which is fine, that's Hollywood stuff.
But here's the point: If you want to celebrate a scout, why wouldn't you have him NOTICE all these things. This gets at the very heart of what scouts do. They watch the games. They talk to the players. They learn all about the families. They listen to the fans. If you are doing a whole movie about what scouts can tell you that computer can't -- this is very crux of the argument.
One of my favorite scout stories involves a scout in Venezuela who saw a kid play. He was too small, he was too slow, he couldn't hit a lick. But the scout loved him, loved him because he had these beautiful soft hands, the ball just stuck to his glove, velcro, and he had this marvelous arm and this wonderful attitude. The scout kept following around the kid -- there was something about him.
He then called the GM personally to plead the case. He said he only needed $5,000 to sign the kid. $5K. It was nothing. The GM said no. Kid can't run. Kid can't hit. Who cares about soft hands? The scout said, "Fine, I'll put up the 5K myself and prove you wrong." The GM was impressed with that, and he liked the scout a lot, and he said, "OK, fine, you can have 5K”
The player turned out to be Andres Blanco -- not a star, certainly, not even an everyday player. But Blanco got 654 plate appearances in the big leagues, made some dazzling defensive plays and was one hell of a deal for $5,000.
This is what scouts do. They try to learn everything about players -- it isn't just noticing a hitch in their swing or that they land on their heel when they pitch or that they have heavy legs, which suggests they might someday be fat. No, the job is getting inside the player. Does the kid have a substance abuse issue? Is he selfish? Does he respond to coaching? Can he handle himself socially? Can he rebound from failure? Does he have a commitment to getting better? Does he have a hunger to be a great ballplayer?
You can make too much of these questions, of course. But you can make too little of them too. I just don't see why the movie couldn't have had Eastwood saying, "Look, this kid is arrogant and obnoxious, and his father's even worse, and while he has talent he'll never make it in baseball." Follow that storyline. That seems to me a real conflict between computers and human observation, between stats and scouts, and maybe you have to come up with a different ending from a dominant left-handed pitcher just showing up outside the scout's daughter's hotel room and then striking out the obnoxious prospect on curveballs.*
Maybe you would even have to call it something other than "Trouble With The Curve." But that's OK. The name kind of stinks too.
*There is one final point. At the end, as mentioned, the lefty who had been throwing peanut bags faces the big prospect and makes him look foolish time and again on the curveball. But here's something that really bothered me. Before he threw curveballs, he threw the prospect some fastballs. And the prospect couldn't hit those either.
Now, seriously, for me, that was kind of the coup de grace of this movie's stinkiosity. If you're REALLY going to have the No. 1 prospect in America not be able to hit a curveball, and then you’re going to have a left-handed pitcher with a great curveball selling peanuts at the park, wouldn't you have the prospect crush the guy's fastball but then strike out on the curve.
Doesn't that get closer to the point? Doesn’t that make about a million times more sense? He throws fastballs, the kid hits them for long home runs, the computer geek beams with joy, and then Amy Adams shouts out, “OK, now throw him the curve!” And he goes down swinging in embarrassing fashion. How did they miss this? I mean, the movie is called TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE. The whole essence is that he had TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE. Now, suddenly, the guy can't hit ANYTHING?
It's enough to make you think that this movie might not have been completely thought through.