Moneyball – Review (2)


Brad Pitt is money but will audiences play ball?

Before getting to the bulk of this review a quick history lesson. In 1989, the Oakland Athletics won the World Series. The following year the team again made it to the World Series but was swept in four games by the Cincinnati Reds. While the Oakland A’s have made a number of playoff appearances since 1990, the team has yet to reach the World Series.

In 1996, Cameron Crowe wrote and directed Jerry Maguire, a film that included a number of popular quotations that would enter our Rolodex of common phrases and be used at the drop of a hat. No bigger was “Show me the money!”

In 2001, after losing in the first round of the American League Divisional Series to the New York Yankees three games to two, A’s General Manager Billy Beane learns that he can’t show the money to three star players and has to watch them get contracts that had a combined worth of $180 million. The Oakland A’s payroll at the time was somewhere around $38 million annually.

The sport of baseball is America’s pastime. Rather than go into a spiel on whether or not that is still the case let’s go with how it’s perceived in Bull Durham, one of the upper-echelon offerings of baseball in cinema. That film opens with Susan Sarandon expressing that she believes in the church of baseball. It is a religion that’s for sure. No other sport is viewed as romantically or scrutinized as much; especially when talking statistics. Home Runs (HRs), Runs Batted In (RBIs), Strikeouts (Ks). Even the novice baseball watcher (perhaps you) will know some of these abbreviations. How are you with VORP (value over replacement player), WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), or OPS (on-base plus slugging)?

(Crickets chirp)

Have I lost you? Don’t worry, the abbreviations and their meanings are inconsequential and you won’t be tested on it later.

If Bull Durham tries to sanctify baseball, then Moneyball replaces the holy water with alcohol and lights a match with its heresy on evaluating talent (sorry baseball scouts). Based on Michael Lewis’ best-selling non-fiction work – its full title is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game – the film adaptation takes out most the “Moneyball” process when it comes to player evaluations but includes just enough to allow audiences to ponder their implications. Non-baseball fans will rejoice at not having to process the process of “Sabermetrics,” a term coined by Bill James that’s used to describe the analysis of baseball through empirical data.

Much like the film release 21 (based on Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House), about a group of MIT card counters that cheated casinos out of money playing blackjack, Moneyball would have been better suited as a documentary film. Steven Soderbergh, who was previously attached to the project before Bennett Miller (Capote) came on board, wanted a cross narrative/documentary format which did not sit well with studio brass who wanted a straight narrative film. What we are left with is a film with no sweeping dramatic arc involving the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) who, along with Assistant GM Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), attempts to change how the game of baseball is played.

As the film’s central figure, Beane is the foundation and while we believe him buying into the philosophy of Sabermetrics, he’s not painted to be a full-fledged sabermetrician. Which is why he has Yale grad Peter Brand (a fictionalized Paul DePodesta – currently the Vice President of player development and scouting for the New York Mets) who sells him on the idea. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the window dressing of the production, taking a small supporting role as A’s manager Art Howe, who is made to look dour and perturbed by Beane’s personnel moves. Yet, it is the backroom wheeling and dealing and the elaboration of the evaluation of players, plus the snippets of on-field action of Oakland’s impressive run in 2002, that is energizing. When the action switches away from the stadium, in scenes that try to humanize Beane as a loving father to a precocious teen (Kerris Dorsey), the movie loses some steam.

The far reaching implications of Moneyball is seeing how Beane changed the game of baseball and the preconceived notions on what it takes to be a baseball player. Unconventional statistics helped to build a competitive roster with, as Brand puts it in the film, a “band of misfit toys.” Teams like the Boston Red Sox would adopt part of the process to retool its lineup card – in 2004 the Sox finally broke the “Curse of the Bambino” winning the World Series – but with one of the biggest payrolls in baseball it is dismissive of the book’s subtitle, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Not unlike the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that made it all the way to the World Series in 2008 with a $43 million payroll.

Sabermetrics may be a novel concept when it comes to a regular 162-game season, but in the playoffs it is essentially a paper tiger unable to generate the same recipe for success – the Rays are the exception to the rule. So there’s a false hope there. The film, sadly, doesn’t do enough to get the point across.

Some critics are likely to compare this film to The Social Network in terms of how one idea had a prevailing influence, but that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. Moneyball is more the statistical equivalent to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and how Billy Beane was able, for a time, to dominate his opponents with “Detail Assessment and Planning” (Chapter 1 of War) instead of money.

The best thing Moneyball has going for it is Brad Pitt’s star appeal. In a performance that is likely to get him another Oscar nomination, Pitt doesn’t do any fancy tricks with his performance. He’s just an ordinary guy who just happens to run a Major League baseball team. As the once-former baseball player turned general manager Billy Beane, Pitt provokes with a weathered countenance, showing his years and job-induced stress. In the same year as Tree of Life, another role worthy of Best Supporting Actor attention, Pitt has shown his range as an actor. Not bad for a guy whose breakthrough (Thelma & Louise) came at the expense of putting a hairdryer down his pants. Pitt is now that seasoned matinee idol that doesn’t have to rely on being a larger-than-life movie star to deliver quality performances.

Moneyball, probably more than any other sports film, is a sports film with the least amount of on-field action. This will play great to non-baseball fans, but diehards may not be too keen. Taking away from the enjoyment is its meandering towards the end. Still, this is likely to get a lot of Oscar attention. So if you’re one of those that intend to see every film up for a gold statuette you best see it.

Director: Bennett Miller
Notable Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Robin Wright
Writer(s): Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Michael Lewis

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