Clint Eastwood has a generous side that sometimes gets him into creative pickles. In 2009, he directed Invictus, a film about South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup, largely as a gift for his friend Morgan Freeman, who wanted to play Mandela. The film was watchable but awash with sentimentality.
A year before that, Eastwood starred in Gran Torino, which he also directed, a much tougher movie. He announced soon after that he was giving up acting.
Four years later, he has come out of retirement to play an ageing baseball scout, Gus Lobel, who is losing his sight. The film is a gift from Eastwood to his long-time producing partner, Robert Lorenz, who has spent almost 20 years at Eastwood's side, often as his first assistant director. It would be nice to say that Lorenz has learnt well from watching the master all these years, but I don't think he has.
The movie is poorly directed, with slack pacing and dull use of the camera. Randy Brown's script is predictable. The only bright spot is the casting, which puts Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake in the frame with Eastwood, two young beauties trying to balance the gnarled visage and Mount Rushmore stature of the 82-year-old Eastwood.
In theory, the set-up is perfect. Eastwood works well opposite a strong female lead - Laura Linney in Absolute Power, Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County, Rene Russo in In the Line of Fire. Within the limits of what this script gives him, he works well with Adams, too. She plays his daughter Mickey, named after Mickey Mantle.
Mickey is an ambitious, plain-speaking lawyer on the verge of becoming a partner in a big firm in Atlanta, Georgia. Her father is a scout for the Atlanta Braves, but they rarely see each other. Her mother died when she was a kid. Something broke in the relationship between father and daughter. Many years later, Gus still visits his late wife's grave to share a beer and a conversation. Bizarrely, he likes to recite the words to You Are My Sunshine at the grave. Eastwood's voice is now somewhere between a whisper and a rasp, but at least he doesn't sing.
Gus is a legendary scout and very old-school. ''Gus can spot talent from an aeroplane,'' says his friend, Pete Klein (John Goodman), at a meeting of the club's managers. Younger men with computers want to update the way the team selects players. Gus doesn't hold with statistics and the ''interweb''.
He has to see a player to know if he'll be any good under pressure, but he can't see that much any more, and he can't tell anyone that his eyesight is failing. The draft is in nine days and the Braves have a No.1 pick.
The characters come together in the backblocks of North Carolina as Gus goes to check out a high school kid called Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill), who is hitting everything out of the park. Mickey arrives unannounced to join him, at the behest of Pete Klein. Timberlake, a scout for the Boston Red Sox, comes to look at the same kid.
The film's arguments are as old-school as Gus. Baseball represents everything that is wholesome and good and gone in modern American movies. Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, The Natural - there's a long tradition of romanticism and nostalgia for a time before television and war and corruption ruined everything. This is a kind of anti-Moneyball movie, with Gus reasserting the old ways while his daughter comes to see that a big city law firm is no place for a girl who loves baseball.
Eastwood growls his way through the film, looking pissed off. It's a pleasure to see him back in front of a camera, even if the film is not up to his standards. That's one of the problems: you can't watch this without a creeping sense that he would have done it better and with more delicacy. Lorenz does a workmanlike job, but the material is too close to where Eastwood has often been.
This may be his first baseball movie, but it's like a replay of the emotions of Million Dollar Baby and several other films - the reform of a curmudgeon. It's also about the last professional days of an ageing bull, a man contemplating the end of a stellar career. It's not hard to see how that might resonate with Eastwood, who must be wondering how long he can go on making movies. Anyone who saw his rambling speech at the Republican convention earlier this year might be wondering the same thing.
This could turn out to be his last performance on film. As such, it is something to cherish, although I hope he does decide to direct himself at least one more time, and in a better movie.
TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE
Directed by Robert Lorenz
Rated M, 111 minutes