Monday, September 26, 2011

Is MONEYBALL a Home Run?


- Moneyball was co-written by Aaron Sorkin, and like last year's Social Network, it seeks to dramatize the beginnings of a thought-revolution, and create something semi-epic out of a relatively small-scale story. I would say that Moneyball partly accomplishes its goals. It's got some fantastic acting from Bradd Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And it's got moments in the script that are full of wit, humor, and intelligence. In many ways, it succeeds in making you think about the role of stats in baseball, in other sports, and in the grander scheme of things. Can success be broken down into a simple stat line?

Moneyball tells the true-life tale of Billy Beane (Bradd Pitt) and the 2002 Oakland A's team of which he was the GM. Through flashbacks, we see some of Billy's backstory - how he was a promising talent recruited to the majors straight out of high school, how he passed up a chance to go to Stanford to play for the Mets, and how he eventually became a rather high-profile big-league bust - eventually transitioning from player to scout. The flashbacks help to set up Billy as a guy contantly trying to atone for the mistakes of his past, to somehow redeem his failed career as a player from his front-office position with the A's. Of course, just as Billy and the A's endure a strong but ultimately disappointing season, they end up losing two key star players to other teams. With a depleted roster and a miniscule budget compared to giants like the Yankees, Billy has to figure out how to keep his team - and their chances at a winning season - from totally disintingrating. Frustrated by the futile-seeming suggestions of his old-timer colleagues at the A's, a lightbulb goes off in Billy's head when he meets a young prodigy by the name of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Fresh out of Yale, Peter is a numbers whiz who maintains that with the right combination of under-the-radar but stat-friendly players on the roster, the A's could defy conventional wisdom and stay competitive. And so Billy and Peter recruit all manner of outcasts, also-rans, and aging vets to the A's, hoping that the combined power of their collective statistical games equals an unbeatable equation for success.

Pitt does a great job as Billy Beane, and he tones down his movie-star cool to portray a guy who's world-weary, beaten down, and a little bit desperate. Similarly, Hill is in fine form as Peter - he's very believable as a fresh-faced math genius and baseball nerd, and his rapport with Pitt is also very good. They have a great chemistry and an amusingly realistic boss/employee relationship. Same goes for Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the A's beleaguered manager. He doesn't have any "big" scenes in the film, but he does a great job of showing his just-barely-contained, slowly-simmering rage at his GM's increasingly unorthodox tactics. I was also very impressed with Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation fame, as fill-in first-baseman Scott Hatteberg. Pratt is amiable and goofy, without being over the top, as Hatteberg, and shows signs that he can pull off more realistic drama, in addition to his usual comedic prowess.

Where Moneyball falters is in the pacing and in the overall intensity-level of the film. Whereas The Social Network pulsated with an almost apocalyptic urgency, Moneyball just never feels like that big or that important of the movie. The history presented here is so recent that it's easy to see that, yes, in some ways Beane and Brand had a sizable effect on baseball, but overall, the game itself is not inherently all that different today than in 2002. It's the inherent danger of making a movie like this based on a fascinating but pretty small-scale true-life story: what happened in real life doesn't always lend itself to the most dramatic possible story. Without spoiling anything for the unitiated, the story of the 2002 A's has some interesting twists and turns, but ultimately, it's only an okay story, lacking a resolution with much punch. Similarly, while the movie attempts to flesh out Beane's backstory and character, it feels like too little. We get some interesting scenes with Beane and his daughter, and with his ex-wife and her new husband, but these scenes weren't quite as revealing or as substantial as I would have liked. As for other characters, like Brand, we really get little to no background on them, so they become a bit hard to latch onto. Overall, the story just feels a little bland and emotionless.

Honestly, I think what Moneyball most lacked was a director with the kind of mad-genius vision of a David Fincher. Director Bennett Miller does a nice job of framing the film with some really gorgeous-looking shots of Oakland, Boston, and other locales. But the overall pacing and style of the movie is just too laborous and plodding. This is a movie about the power of stats and numbers, and so I wanted to be dazzled with stats and numbers. I'm not a hardcore baseball fan, but I think it would have been cool and interesting to really dive into why the numbers were in the A's favor in 2002. What, exactly, changed - for example - between their season-opening losing streak and their improbable 20-game win streak that followed. We see the broad strokes of it, but I wanted the movie to dazzle me with mathemagic (yes, I just said mathemagic). A guy like Fincher might have been able to yank every globule of awe and wonder and tension out of a story like this, but Miller seems to think he's making Field of Dreams, when this just isn't that sort of story. In fact, knowing that teams like the Yankees *still* enjoy a huge and completely lopsided advantage over smaller market MLB teams lends the film an air of somber futility that conflicts with its central underdogs-triumphant message.

That said, Moneyball is still a fun, interesting, witty movie that works on a number of levels. I thought it was very good, but I also think that Oscar talks around it are overstating the film's overall effectiveness. Bradd Pitt had a better individual performance in this summer's Tree of Life. Warrior was the better underdog sports movie of this Fall. But Moneyball is an easily-digested bit of sports-trivia fun - a well-executed, well-acted movie that is certainly worth a look, but not quite a home run.

My Grade: B+

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