Sep 22, 2011

REACTION: Moneyball Hits A Solid Triple

I know that football fever has already begun to take hold of many of you, but lest you forget, there's still baseball happening!  Playoff baseball!  Here in Boston, we've already begun the process of emotionally detaching from our beloved Red Sox, who've blown a nine game Wild Card lead in just over a month and are now in danger of not making the playoffs at all.  At least now we've got Tom Brady (a.k.a. Football Jesus) to comfort us on Sundays.

Moneyball hits theaters just in time for the playoffs and while it doesn't quite hit one out of the park, it's easily better than most of the titles currently lighting up your local cinema marquee.  Based on the bestselling book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager for the small market Oakland A's as they struggle to remain competitive in a crowd of far better financed ball clubs.  Just how better financed?  The film opens with the A's being eliminated from the 2001 playoffs by the New York Yankees, the wealthiest team in baseball and one that outspends the A's approximately $120 million to $38 million.  Yeah.

Once the season ends and the team loses its three strongest players, Beane decides that they need to dramatically alter the way they put a team together.  Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics grad who advocates the then-emerging concept of sabermetrics, i.e. analyzing player statistics and building your team based on which players are, mathematically speaking, most likely to generate runs, and therefore wins.  Sabermetrics flies in the face of everything Major League Baseball believes in; scouts and coaches have been evaluating players based largely on nebulous and abstract qualities for over a hundred years, and to put it mildly, they fear change.  But Beane is a former player himself, someone who was told by scouts that he'd be a superstar only to drown in mediocrity once he got to the big show.  Now, as a GM, he wants more than just to win.  He wants to change the game itself.

There are a lot of things that really work here, and chief among them is the relationship between Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.  I would love to see these two together in another flick, as they have a strangely wonderful sort of chemistry.  While Pitt's Beane is an outgoing, larger than life personality that practically hums with energy, Hill's Peter Brand is soft-spoken and often seems afraid that the world is going to knock him down.  But together they truly believe in what they're doing and they each sort of learns from and feeds off of the other.  Pitt/Hill is easily my new favorite onscreen odd couple.

On his own, Pitt gives one of his strongest performances to date, balancing the semi-mania of a guy who is constantly moving and/or eating (seriously, he eats SO MUCH FOOD) with the thoughtfulness of a man who only speaks when he has something important to say.  While he gets plenty of chances to show off his comedy chops, Pitt also brings a broken quality to Beane, the inherent sadness of a man who chose baseball over an education only to have baseball kick him in the teeth.  Unable to be the great player he always dreamed, Beane has lost all the romance of baseball.  It's now merely a job, and it's the only one he knows how to do.  By winning a championship with his controversial method, he has a chance to really make his mark on the history of the sport in the last way he's able.

Hill plays everything remarkably straight, and while he's got plenty of funny lines, you never get the sense that he's delivering a punchline.  This is a new side to Hill, one that could really open a lot of interesting doors for his career.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Oakland's cantankerous manager Art Howe and it's a largely thankless role.  He spends his surprisingly brief screen time basically arguing with Beane's methods and refusing to play the guys Beane wants on the field, although it doesn't come from a place of villainy; Howe's working under a one year contract and he's afraid that no one will hire him next spring.  There are a handful of other bright supporting performances, including Stephen Bishop as David Justice, Reed Diamond as Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, the adorable Kerris Dorsey as Pitt's musically inclined daughter and the one and only Spike Jonze (!), but the real standout is Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg, a catcher with a bad arm whom Beane enlists to play first base, despite having no actual experience at that position.  Most will recognize Pratt from his great work as the simple-minded Andy on Parks & Recreation, but there's no trace of Pawnee shoeshine boy here.  Pratt really shines here as a guy who's working his ass off to keep playing the game he loves, and in a baseball movie without a lot of actual gameplay,  Hatteberg becomes the symbol for team, the guy you're rooting for to succeed.

The screenplay is credited to Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zallian, but those of you who were hoping Moneyball would be The Social Network Of Baseball will be sorely disappointed; the script is much more Zallian than Sorkin.  If anything it feels as if Zallian laid out the story and Sorkin was brought in to to rewrite a handful of scenes and punch up the dialogue.  There's none of Sorkin's trademark verbosity on display here, and only a few scenes (notably the one where Beane and a coach tell Hatteberg they want him to play first base) that feature the oft-imitated ping-pong style of conversation.  But Zallian (Gangs Of New York, Schindler's List) is no slouch and I think the two styles actually come together quite well.  Ironically, I think the weakest part of the story is the actual baseball; there simply isn't enough screentime spent with the team to really bond with the players to the point that we want them to win because we like these guys.  We really just want them to prove Beane right, so in that way they might as well be a faceless machine, a race car that Beane is trying to build better than anyone else.

And credit to director Bennett Miller (Capote) for stepping for Stephen Soderbergh (which must be somewhat terrifying) and really directing the hell out of this picture.  Miller is definitely an actor's director and he pulls some great and often a-typical performances out of his cast.  He also manages to mix footage of actors portraying baseball players with real game footage of the actual players without making it feel confusing or off-putting to the audience.  Not to mention, (and I say this as a former employee of a major league ball club) he does a great job of capturing the strange dichotomy of working in a dingy basement office, or in a maze of cubicles while the emerald majesty of a ballfield and the pomp and circumstance of a big game lie just on the other side of the wall.  Mychael Danna's score is minimal yet effective and Wally Pfister's cinematography is simply gorgeous, even when shooting in drab locations like the dusty shipping yards of Oakland.  There's also some really fantastic sound design during the "big game" at the end of the film.

At the end of the day, I think that Sorkin, Zallian and Miller have done an admirable job of turning a nerdy book about baseball math into a funny and emotionally accessible film that's chock full of great performances and still manages to teach audiences a thing or two about a game that most have probably watched their entire lives.  Unfortunately, I think the movie ultimately betrays itself by falling back on the tropes of a traditional sports movie in order to play on the audience's emotions when Beane and Brand's quixotic quest to defy the odds (by playing the odds) is fascinating enough on its own.  There was plenty of other material to mine from the book, particularly Beane's crafty maneuvering during the baseball draft to snag future all-stars like Nick Swisher; it makes me curious to read Soderbergh's earlier drafts, which included Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, as a sort of recurring talking head throughout the story.  What we're left with is a charming, easy-going sort of flick that belies the clear potential of a best picture contender.  Other than perhaps Brad Pitt (and that's a fairly big perhaps), I wouldn't expect Moneyball to be a big part of the awards discussion this winter, but I think it's actually the perfect autumn movie, a great way to pull audiences out of what's been a summer full of largely empty spectacle and prepare them for the headier, classier fare that's sure to overrun theaters once the weather turns colder and this year's baseball season fades to black.

Moneyball hits theaters tomorrow.

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