Published September 21. 2012 4:00AM
Mileage and misadventure leave their marks, but we don't always notice the damage right away. Last Monday, for instance, Clint Eastwood had a realization that stopped him in his tracks just outside his bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot.
"Son of a gun," the 82-year-old muttered as he leaned over his beloved 1992 GMC Typhoon and dragged an index finger over the mysterious inch-long scratch marring the forest-green paint just above the grill.
A little later, sitting among the brown-leather shadows of his office, Eastwood seemed considerably less concerned about any dents in his reputation after his eccentric, meandering speech at the Republican National Convention late last month.
"I didn't want to do the usual teleprompter thing. ... I didn't know what the hell I was going to do," the genial star said of his spur-of-the-moment decision to use an empty chair as a prop representing President Obama. "If I had more time I would have organized more. Maybe, but I don't know."
As Eastwood related his tales of Tampa he nodded to the couch cushion next to him for effect even though it wasn't empty - it was occupied by Robert Lorenz, the director and co-producer of "Trouble With the Curve," opening Friday. The two have worked together since 1994 and when Eastwood said the Republican leadership "probably had a little apoplexy" during the speech, a winking Lorenz said he could feel their pain.
"That kind of sums up what it's like to direct Clint Eastwood," Lorenz deadpanned. "You never know what's going to come out. But at least you have an advantage of having an editor afterwards."
"Trouble With the Curve" stars Eastwood as the cantankerous Gus Lobel, a baseball scout who may be in the last inning of his storied career as his eyesight goes out. He needs help, but it comes from the most unlikely source: his estranged daughter, Mickey, played by three-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams.
The tightly wound Mickey is poised to claim a corner office in her elite Atlanta law firm, but she risks that by following her dad to the bleachers of a North Carolina ballpark; the risk might be worth it if she can finally unravel the reason her widower father abruptly exiled her from his life years earlier. Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Robert Patrick and Matthew Lillard also star in the film, scripted by newcomer Randy Brown.
No one is swinging for the fence more than Lorenz. The Chicago native has been the good soldier at Eastwood's side since coming on as an assistant director on "The Bridges of Madison of County," and although he received two Oscar nominations as Eastwood's producer ("Mystic River" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" were both up for best picture), this new project is a special moment -"Curve" is his feature-film directorial debut.
For years, Lorenz has spied one thing when he's looked to the horizon of his career: a waiting director's chair. The 45-year-old Chicago native said this script, with a mix of humor and heartache as well as themes of career pressure and family fractures, was the ideal project.
Even better, Brown's script presented a central role for a maverick spirit of advanced age and chronically bad attitude - in other words, a fastball down the middle for Eastwood the actor. The star was once the rangy, grizzled symbol of the Old West loner and then later the scowling agent of urban-street retribution, but now he is the embodiment of coiled geriatric rage.
Eastwood last appeared onscreen in 2008 in "Gran Torino" as Walt Kowalski, another man staring into the twilight with a scowl and clenched fists.
"There are certain things people enjoy seeing Clint do on the screen," Lorenz said. "You can make the characters different - and they are different - but there is a quality to the character that people enjoy seeing up on the screen, of course, so you don't want to run from that."
Eastwood punctuated Lorenz's thought: "They enjoy my unpleasantness."
He might be on to something with that. "Gran Torino," directed by Eastwood, had a production budget of $33 million and went on to gross $270 million worldwide. But the longtime box-office hero isn't motivated by commercial imperatives, and most people (himself included) expected it would be his last screen appearance considering the recent career emphasis and vigor he's found in directing. With "Curve," he's acted in five films since 2000, but in that same window he's directed 11 feature films with several gaining serious critical accolades and major trophy attention.
Eastwood is even less interested in acting in movies that he's not directing. The last time the star appeared in front of a camera on another director's set? Wolfgang Petersen's "In the Line of Fire" (1993), which underlines the gesture of support Eastwood made to support Lorenz's debut effort.
"Trouble With the Curve" finds its setting and setup in the career of Eastwood's Lobel, a scout for the Atlanta Braves who is considered a legend and/or antique, depending on whom you ask and their age. The movie celebrates the metrics of "The Natural" and "Field of Dreams" - soulfulness, grit and respect for tradition matter as much as stolen bases - and that would seem to make it a rebuttal to last year's "Moneyball," which suggested that judging players by stats is the populist solution to clubhouse celebrity and cronyism.
Lorenz and Eastwood don't see this story as a sports movie - and indeed there are no game scenes, really, of any length or deep dramatic consequence - so they aren't especially engaged in the idea of a World Series showdown in schools of thought.
"When I first saw it was a baseball movie I was not that excited," Eastwood said of his part. "But then I read it and saw that really this wasn't a sports movie at all. And then I thought it was a perfect opportunity. I had no doubt he'd do a terrific job, and he absolutely did."