Friday, September 23, 2011

'Moneyball' Movie Review

“Peace to Oakland, I’ve never been a fan of the A’s”
—Blue Scholars

At the heart of Bennett Miller’s new film “Moneyball” is the story of a little guy going against the grain, challenging established norms and mores, and trying to indelibly alter the world around him. “Moneyball” is the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who, in the early 2000s, turned his back on 150 years of traditional baseball wisdom, and adopted a radically new approach to assembling a team.

Tired of getting trounced by organizations like the New York Yankees, teams with exponentially larger payrolls—teams who also poached what big time talent the A’s did possess—Beane, and his cohort Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), take a contrary path, one based on statistical analysis instead of scouting, intuition, and baseball acumen. Instead of spending money they don’t have, they field a team made up of players overlooked by other teams, often for superficial reasons like they don’t look like athletes. They put together a roster of young players, players thought to be past their primes, guys who throw funny, and the like. Essentially they build their own Island of Misfit Toys on the baseball diamond.

Because it can’t just be about baseball, though it mostly is, Beane has a daughter (Kathryn Morris), and an ex-wife (Robin Wright) who is married to this new-age ass-clown who talks in a soft, soothing voice, and wears sandals (Spike Jonze). The parts with his daughter are exactly what you would expect them to be, and they’re really superfluous to the rest of the film. I get why that aside is included, but it is an obvious ploy to elicit a prescribed emotional response, and primarily a secondary concern. Luckily there is little enough time spent there to make it pretty innocuous. These parts do what they need to do then get you back to the main narrative.

The first part of “Moneyball” is devoted to laying out Beane and Brand’s system, implementing the changes, and watching with horror as their best laid plans crumble spectacularly into dust. After that it becomes an up-by-their-bootstraps/scrappy-underdog story, and you see all of their faith and commitment come to fruition. I tried to stay away from it, but the easiest comparison is to “Bad News Bears”, though really any other triumphant small-fry-goes-big-time sports story will do. However, there is a slightly different spin on the scenario this time. It isn’t so much that the shiftless layabouts, has-beens, and never-will-bes come together and start playing way over their head, but that the system, when properly implemented, finally starts to work. In the end the scheme triumphs, not necessarily the players. Though I think the film ultimately falls more on the side of while you can analyze the hell out of every aspect and every stat, that there’s no accounting for heart.

What really carries “Moneyball” is Pitt. On the surface he is all cockiness and bravado, a fast-talking ex-ballplayer who never fully realize his potential. His brash, tobacco-spitting (there is so much spitting into cups in “Moneyball”, especially during the roundtables with the scouts, that I found myself feeling bad for whoever had to come in after them and clean up all the Dixie Cups full of saliva and chaw) exterior masks his underlying fear and his shaken confidence. He gives a nice performance, which, despite what is at this point a long and distinguished career, always surprises me to some small degree. I think he’s such a tabloid/gossip column fixture, such a massive pop culture presence, that his celebrity often eclipses the fact that he’s actually a really good actor.

Hill also turns in a solid turn. Brand is a Yale grad, with a degree in economics no less, and no background in baseball at all. He is awkward in social situations and lacks confidence in himself. What he does believe in are his numbers and analysis. The two leads have a great chemistry, with Brand is the nerdy straight man to Beane’s charismatic, smart-ass GM. It’s a nice departure from Hill’s usual over-the-top, off-the-cuff antics, and they are a lot of fun to watch together onscreen.

“Moneyball” is a good time; a smart, fact-based sports story that you don’t have to be a sports fan to enjoy. The movie is less about baseball than what goes into the game. Starting off with a quote from Mickey Mantle about how you never know all of what goes on in this game you play all your life, “Moneyball” presents a behind-the-scenes glimpse into America’s game. It is a David and Goliath story, a little guys fighting “the Man” tale, with an interesting plot, and two strong actors playing two strong characters. You aren’t going to walk away with any new or lasting insights into life, you won’t be overwhelmed by great peaks of emotion, but you will walk away feeling pretty good, and that’s not too bad.

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