Sunday, September 23, 2012

Clint's version

Although it was primarily noted for its structural weirdness and rambling, Clint Eastwood’s endlessly mocked recent speech to the Republican National Convention was also remarkably ineffective as an actual endorsement of Mitt Romney. His case for backing Romney seemed to consist mostly of disappointment in Obama for not keeping his promises and for personal inconsistency (such as claiming to be “an ecological man” while continuing to ride in Air Force One), largely regardless of whether those promises had much merit in the first place. Toward the end he mused on the downfall of attorneys as presidents (perhaps not knowing Romney also has a law degree), on the basis that “they're always taught to argue everything, and always weight everything -- weigh both sides...always devil's advocating this and bifurcating this and bifurcating that.” I’m sure Eastwood doesn’t really believe it’s inherently wrong to weigh both side of an issue, but his own internal contemplation mechanism likely operates on a severe time limit.

Eastwood’s view

It’s not hard to see this worldview on display in Eastwood’s recent career. When I reviewed Gran Torino here a few years ago, I said this: “…his aversion to over-embellishment, to over-lighting, over-acting, over-anything really counts for something. Despite presumably unlimited access to anything and anywhere he wants, Eastwood somehow manages to retain his maverick credentials. Over and over, his protagonists have to assert their rights and individuality against a corrupt or merely foolish governing machine. The movies aren’t morally complex or strident (Million Dollar Baby’s treatment of euthanasia might be the acid test here); they valorize self-determination, but despise those who fail to grasp their responsibilities (even if on occasion those responsibilities consist of little more than not being an a-hole). Eastwood’s fluid but terse style perfectly fits this instinct. Getting it close enough and moving on resembles an article of faith; dawdling perfectionists belong with the despised paper pushers of the Dirty Harry films.” (Or I might add now, with those who’d fuss about the content of a speech rather than just coming out and nailing it based on presence and know, if it had worked out that way).

Those comments on Gran Torino sound about right to me as a distillation of Eastwood’s disillusionment with Obama: the current President just hasn’t figured out how to get it close enough and move on, where a “businessman” might. Eastwood couldn’t help conveying a sense that Obama might actually be the cooler of the two candidates – his fantasy that the invisible Obama in the chair might be telling Romney to go f--- himself seemed implicitly to acknowledge the potential appeal of such an utterance – but such coolness is the enemy of focused productivity. And if Clint’s movies aren’t necessarily morally complex, they’re full of cautionary notes against the flaws of the system and of those who run it. Closing with the thought that “we own (this country) is not you owning it, and not politicians owning it...politicians are employees of ours,” he might easily have been signaling Romney that his endorsement (such as it was) was just good for one term, with the case for an extension yet to be made.

Trouble with the Curve

Eastwood’s new film Trouble with the Curve illustrates his loyalty to those who make the case for it – it’s the first time in twenty years he’s acted in a movie without also directing it, and the first-time director Robert Lorenz has worked for him in various capacities for almost that long. He plays Gus, an elderly scout for the Atlanta Braves, still working out stats by hand and relying on his observations and instincts, long after most of his counterparts have entered the computer age (as many have pointed out, the movie provides a vague counterargument to last year’s Moneyball). His daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) is a hard-driving lawyer on the brink of partnership, and a shrewd baseball brain herself as a consequence of a girlhood spent trailing her dad around; their relationship is now uneasy, but she accompanies him on a make-or-break trip to assess a hot new prospect. Also hanging round is Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a scout from a rival team, who soon starts scouting Mickey as much as he does the players.  

Clint, of course, plays it stubborn and cantankerous, but in the pantheon of wrinkly pains in the ass, Gus is a much milder creation than the character he played last time round, in Gran Torino (which really seemed  tailor-made as Eastwood’s final screen appearance). Lorenz only occasionally taps into the star’s iconic status, for example in a full-bore close-up when Gus mists up by his wife’s grave while talk-singing You are my Sunshine (and of course, those details may tell you all you need to know about the movie) – a lot of the time though, it feels like the inexperienced director was preoccupied by constantly moving on, but without his mentor’s long-honed instinct for whether he’d gotten close enough first. The film’s evocation of organizations and environments – whether it’s the law office, the baseball organization, or the small-town settings of their road trip – feels consistently shallow, and most of the character interactions are perfunctory. The main exception is Adams, an exceptionally bright and resourceful actor here as always.

Still, this kind of bread-and-butter star vehicle has almost gone the way of the computer-free scout now, and I didn’t mind watching it one bit. The film’s real point – not that it should ever have been in much doubt – connects in a flurry of final-act hits, and is simply this: the good people get their rewards, and the a-holes get their comeuppance. I don’t think the movie will be winning any screenwriting awards, but there’s certainly some skill involved in  firing/discrediting/taking down so many individuals while simultaneously valorizing/redeeming/transforming others. None of it makes any sense, but that’s always been the nature of bread-and-butter star vehicles I guess.

Trouble with the Mitt

Going back to the infamous speech in this light, Eastwood’s pretty clearly concluded that Obama belongs in the group that needs to get their comeuppance, a conclusion reached (and expressed) on the basis of instinct more than detailed analysis. Unfortunately for Romney, it’s not as apparent that Eastwood thinks he really belongs with the good guys. Trouble with the Curve is full of old-time actors like Ed Lauter and Tom Dreesen, just hanging out, delivering a line or two, incidental to the film’s driving project, and it feels to me like he’d be most inclined to shove Romney in with those guys (as a Letterman joke put it, maybe he could have cast Mitt as “the guy in the restaurant that comes to your table to make sure everything's all right”). But actually, if Clint directs again, I think he’d be more intrigued by the possibilities of casting the empty chair than by anything to do with Romney.

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