Monday, March 5, 2012

Blogorium Review: Moneyball

 I'm a little perplexed by all of the attention Moneyball received during "Awards Season." It's not that the film isn't good (because it is) or entertaining (which it is as well), but the movie is inherently anticlimactic, and by necessity can't actually go anywhere at the end for any of the main characters. I get that the combination of Academy Award winners Steve Zallian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) with Academy Award nominee Bennett Miller (Capote) is going to get the attention of Academy voters, and they all do fine work. The cast also does fine work, and the story - based on Michael Lewis' Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, itself based the true story of Oakland A's manager Billy Beane - is an intriguing one.

  Beane (Brad Pitt) is facing the prospect of rebuilding the Atheltics after a crushing defeat that cost them a spot in the World Series, coupled with the loss of his three star players: Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen to teams that can pay them more. With no budget to work with, Beane is trying to make desperation deals with the Cleveland Indians when he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics graduate working for the organization. Brand has a different notion of how to build talent on a team, based on statistics and on base percentages, and Beane likes it. Almost immediately, they run into resistance - from the scouts, from manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and from sports media insiders and pundits. Despite the pressure to do otherwise, they pick up Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo), David Justice (Stephen Bishop), and Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), all of whom have been given up on by other teams. But Howe refuses to play the lineup that Beane and Brand put together, and things don't go south quickly. Can the unlikely strategy turn around the Oakland A's and allow them to compete with teams who money to spend, or is Beane looking at his swan song as general manager of the team?

 In fact, the story behind Moneyball the film is almost as interesting as the actual story of Billy Beane's experiment on Oakland: the film was, up until 2009, a project Steven Soderbergh planned to direct, starring Brad Pitt with Demitri Martin playing Beane's actual assistant, Paul DePodesta (Peter Brand is a composite character). Soderbergh also wanted David Justice and Scott Hatteberg to play themselves, but Sony put the film on hold and let Soderbergh go, replacing him with Miller and hiring Sorkin to rewrite Zallian's draft.

 You don't necessarily need to know anything about the Oakland A's or Billy Beane to watch Moneyball, and I guess if you don't know anything about baseball at all - maybe the combination of Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and (to a smaller degree) Phillip Seymour Hoffman brought you in - then it might be surprise how it ends. That surprise, alas, doesn't seem to be one that people are really happy about. Moneyball is a somewhat atypical version of the "underdog" subgenre of sports pictures. A rag-tag group of misfits get together and try to do something different because what's in place doesn't work. They fail at first, but then against the expectations of everyone else, they begin an improbable journey to proving everybody wrong. You've seen it before, and Moneyball is basically that film, just based around the management side of baseball and less about the players.

 Except that (I guess this is a SPOILER) the Oakland A's don't win. They do break the single season record of 20 consecutive wins, but lose in the first round of the postseason to the Minnesota Twins. Like their loss to the Yankees the year before, it's a hard pill to swallow for Beane, but it does get him an interview with the Boston Red Sox, the team that hired away Johnny Damon the year before. They want him to come on board, and he decides to stay with Oakland. Two years later, the Boston Red Sox, using Beane's example, broke their 86 year long championship drought. They did it with a combination of the payroll that Beane didn't have and the sabremetric system (see link above).

 A few friends of mine have rightfully pointed out that it's just as rough for viewers as it is for the fictional Beane that not only does the precedent he put into practice not work for him, but the team that does use it successfully is the very team that took one of Oakland's star players. There's even a title card at the end of the film to tell us this, as Moneyball doesn't really know quite to to finish the story: Peter shows Billy footage that metaphorically describes what happened and then Beane drives through Oakland listening to a song his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) recorded for him. Moneyball's ending isn't ambiguous in a way that makes much of a difference, because the stark black and white title cards break the bad news to anybody watching the film that thought "well, maybe next year!"

 I don't actually like having to point out that Moneyball is a tease of a movie, one that is eternally heading in a direction it can't actually go, and one that the film itself has to grudgingly admit hasn't happened before the credits roll. Moneyball is a solid film with great dialogue, understated performances, and is compelling even when you know how things end. I like that Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane as kind of a dick, an aloof general manager who doesn't like traveling or associating with the players because he's going to need to trade them. He's not exactly a likeable character but you like him anyway, because he makes the best of a bad situation. He's also almost always eating something: I feel the need to point this out because I began to notice it halfway through the film and then couldn't stop paying attention to the fact that Pitt is constantly chewing on something during Moneyball.

 Jonah Hill is also very good and I guess un-Jonah Hill-esque as "Peter Brand," a guy who spends the first half of the film in awe of Beane and the second half trying to keep him engaged with the team's success. While I thought he was good, I don't exactly understand the nomination of "Best Supporting Actor" as the only real difference between Moneyball Jonah Hill and every other Jonah Hill performance is that he isn't cracking sarcastic jokes. It's a little like his character from Cyrus - a movie I really didn't like - but without the manipulative streak in that film. Hill was as good as Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Howe as a guy that doesn't get or approve of what Beane is doing but instead of being a jerk because he can, also makes the best of a bad situation. He thinks he's on the way out because Beane won't discuss renewing his contract, but instead of being vindictive, he plays the team that will help him get a job next year. Why Hill was nominated and Hoffman wasn't, I couldn't say. They're both as good as Pitt, who was also nominated for reasons I don't quite get.

 Now this sounds like I'm knocking Jonah Hill or Brad Pitt, and I'm not. I liked Moneyball, and I liked everybody in Moneyball and will probably watch it again, but I didn't see why the film was Academy Award material. There are really good movies that don't need to be nominated for Academy Awards, or aren't nominated, I guess I should say, and I'd put Moneyball in that category. It wouldn't make my "Top" list from 2011, but it would be in that bracket with Bridesmaids and Attack the Block and Conan O'Brien Can't Stop. To be fair, that's where I'd put The Artist, too, so that shows how much I understand about Academy Awards politics. What I'm saying is that you should check out Moneyball, even if you aren't into baseball, but understand that like real life, sometimes things don't work out, or necessarily end.

After all, Billy Beane is still in Oakland and this season he's decided to sign Manny Ramirez to a minor league deal with the option to play for the A's. Manny Ramirez played for the Boston Red Sox when they won the World Series in 2004 (and again in 2007). You never know - there might be a Moneyball 2 someday...

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