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Awesome: 31.11%
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Average: 15.56%
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6 reviews, 9 user ratings

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by Jack Sommersby

"The Best of Its Kind Since 'Bull Durham'"
4 stars

I know it's not exactly original hailing a movie as "good old-fashioned entertainment," but if the shoe fits...

In the wonderfully entertaining Moneyball, Brad Pitt gives a tremendous, career-best performance as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics who, after a loss in the division final to the New York Yankees, risks his job on a risky, unorthodox approach to filling next season's roster. He's lost three star players to better-paying teams with far larger budgets, and rather than going the old-school approach of trying to fill those openings with players the scouts think will eventually measure up, with a Yale graduate with a degree in Economics, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Billy goes against the grain by recruiting less-talented players whose percentage of getting on base is higher than their overall ability. It's a highly scientific method reliant on spreadsheets of various statistics, a long-term rather than short-term approach: if they can get on base more times than they can hit home runs, the accumulative runs will ensure them enough points to win the pennant this time. Naturally, the bewildered veteran scouts voice their displeasure; the head coach, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), is even more enraged at having to start these players who are inferior to the better players he's got; and in a real kick in the pants, he's even got to train them in different positions than they've played before, either because of a weak arm or diminished stamina. For a while, after the new season is under way and the team is suffering humiliating defeats, we're tempted to think Billy has lost his mind and will be proven wrong; but, of course, this is a mainstream movie, and with more than an hour left in the running time, we just know his long-shot bet is going to pay off, and it gradually does -- to a certain degree, that is. Where William Friedkin's incisive college-basketball movie Blue Chips gave us a coach reluctantly violating NCAA rules by approving monetary and material incentives to talented players to make his team a contender, Moneyball (based on a true story) deals with an organization trying to remain competitive with a much lower cash reserve at its disposal. For purists, any sport is supposed to remain faithful to the "spirit of the game," but as the writers, Steven Zallian (Schindler's List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), and the director, Bennett Miller (Capote), present it, big-league sports should never be mistaken for anything other than a business first and an entertainer second.

Some may object to this as utter cynicism, and it is cynical to a degree, but only the truly deluded will think it's not realistic. The moviemakers aren't out to savagely demystify pro sports like Bernard Malumud brilliantly did in his classic 1952 novel The Natural (which, unfortunately, was made into an overstuffed cinematic cream puff in the 1984 Barry Levinson-directed adaptation of it), but their willingness to present stark truths is both modulated and measured -- we're not pounded over the head with high-mindedness, and the movie deftly sidesteps going didactic on us. It's a genuine accomplishment for Bennett, whose overrated, smug Capote presented its title character in a grossly caricaturized manner with egregious helpings of trite social commentary; here, being perceptive as well as knowing, he gives us a succinct clinched-fist indictment of major-league sports by keeping an identifiable human element at its center. In tactful flashbacks, we're shown that Billy was a supremely gifted high-school ballplayer (much like Malumud's "natural" Roy Hobbs) who passed up a full scholarship with Stanford to sign a lucrative contract with the New York Mets, but he was never able to live up to his potential; he eventually washed out, and after being traded by the Mets and failing to regain his fire with a couple of other teams, he chose to drop out and become a scout because he loved the game and still wished to be a part of it. (The screenplay errs a bit in not presenting this as fully as it should. Couldn't Billy have joined the Mets out of love of the game as well as for the money? Who wouldn't want to go to the pros if they had the chance?) He sees what he's doing not only as a way of preserving his career, but as a chance at reverting the game back to where it was before greedy free agents and sports agents, where big-bucks teams like the Yankees and Boston Red Sox won't always be able to defeat inferior-funded teams just because of their deep pocketbooks. Billy wants to make the sport pure again, which may not be the most original subject for a motion picture but certainly isn't a negligible one, not when its heart is undoubtedly in the right place and refuses to douse us with uncouth bathos and unearned pathos. Billy knows the A's have to win that last game of the season or the series, or what he's trying to do will be overshadowed by the loss, so even with the team on the verge of setting the league record for winning twenty consecutive games in a row, it'll count for moot in the overall scheme of things.

Moneyball is more a character study than a bona-fide sports movie. We don't see that much in the way of baseball action, and for a while I thought Bennett was being deceptive, wanting to cover too much ground and skip past the basics, but we soon see the toll the pressure of winning can be on a general manager, not just on a star player. Bennett makes it his practice of not watching the games, whether they're in Oakland or not; he chooses to exercise in the stadium gym or take long drives in his pickup truck, and we can't decide whether it's because he's too nerve-racked or feels his contribution is strictly organizational, that it's all up to the manager on the field when the game's under way -- and maybe he's refused the opportunity to be that coach on the field because he can't take the pressure and the responsibility on winning. We also don't know what caused the split between him and his wife (played in a thankless cameo by the talented Robin Wright); we could assume he's been neglectful with "the game" his chief priority over family, or whether he's never really regained the life force he had before giving up as a player. Where most screenplays would spell this kind of thing out, the movie is canny enough to let us get our own reading on things. Granted, Moneyball isn't anything particularly complex or profound, but it gets at the heart of winning on a psychological level not rivaled since Ron Shelton's extraordinary Bull Durham, where we were placed in the emotional midst of a man, Kevin Costner's minor-league catcher Crash Davis, who couldn't quite achieve major-league success because his considerable intelligence outweighed his not-quite-good-enough athletic ability. (The scene where he drunkenly berated a superior player about to go to the majors as having "talent" while he merely had "brains" is one of the greatest dramatic scenes ever.) And it isn't simplistically moralistic like Cameron Crowe's tendentious Jerry MacGuire -- it doesn't revolve around a cliched central romance, and we're spared solipsistic speeches reminding us time and again of Billy's wholesomeness. Maybe Billy will find his soul mate, maybe he won't, but in the meantime he's knowing enough to recognize that his neglect of his teenage daughter has done some harm (though I wish we were spared a scene in a music store where she strums a guitar and sings a too-literal song to her dad about how she's "caught in the middle" with her parents).

Billy is a gem of a role for Pitt, who comes alive with an alertness and etches the kind of full-bodied portrait he's always been capable of but has sometimes sublimated in undemanding fluff like Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Readily apparent is the touching introspection he displayed as the confused Everyman in Seven Years in Tibet, the affecting insecurity as the out-of-his-depth big-city cop in Se7en, the snappy style as the yuppie-despising troublemaker in Fight Club. (We'll probably never again see the kind of fascinating wild-man act he dazzled us with as the white-trash sociopath in Kalifornia; then again, a role like Kentucky-bred Early Grayce doesn't come around too often in an artist's lifetime.) There's a marvelous scene where Billy hurriedly negotiates the trading and dropping of some players for the better good of the team, with him in an office on a multi-line speakerphone with Peter at his side, and the way it's been masterfully shot and cut, and with Pitt totally in-sync with its delirious rhythm, we come out of it as drained and spent as Billy. This is what Billy has to bring to his own game as a general manager: with hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars at play during these sessions, it's high-tension, high-stakes wheeling and dealing that takes no prisoners. And there's the part of the job he likes least: cutting players, to which he instructs Peter the best way to go about it is to give it to them straight in a strictly professional, unemotional manner -- getting emotional might lead the player to think he can play on that emotion to change the decision, which Billy (correctly) says winds up shooting the player in the heart rather than the leg. Pitt isn't the whole show here, though. There's capable support from all the other actors, especially Ken Medlock as the head scout who eventually comes to a volcanic eruption with Billy, and Arliss Howard as the soulful Red Sox owner who believes in Billy's new method and eventually offers him a quite lucrative offer. Scoring big, also, are editor Christopher Tellefsen, composer Mychael Danna, and, especially, Wally Pfister, director Christopher Nolan's usual cinematographer, taking a break from the Batman series and giving the ballparks and even the locker rooms a lovely sheen that's an understated feast for the eyes. This stalwart technician manages to give an Oakland stadium as much visual vitality as those foreboding nighttime streets and back alleys of Gotham City.

A splended DVD transfer, but you'll have to wait for a special edition to come out if you want additional features.

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originally posted: 01/28/12 10:36:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

3/26/15 Robert Tschinkel finally a baseball movie about humans and the emotions they experience in this game 4 stars
10/10/13 Simon 3.5, so rounds up. Accessible & tightly written, but some oversights/liberties glaring 4 stars
2/26/12 Monday Morning You'll never leave your seat. Excellent! 5 stars
2/10/12 RueBee would watch it again 4 stars
11/16/11 Steve Capell GREAT movey for those that love baseball. 4 stars
10/15/11 Suzz Not a great film but it was good baseball movie 4 stars
10/10/11 Darkstar i wanted to like it, but it was so slow. 3 stars
9/24/11 Toni Oakland 5 stars
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  23-Sep-2011 (PG-13)
  DVD: 10-Jan-2012


  DVD: 10-Jan-2012

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