MoneyballReviewed By Brett Gallman
Posted 11/09/11 11:06:01
(Worth A Look)
"Moneyball" reveals a gentle irony about the game of baseball; though it's concerned with numbers and reverent of statistical records more so than any other sport, its antiquated methods of scouting never truly delved beyond those that we all knew as kids thanks to baseball cards: home runs, RBIs, and batting average. Instead, scouts generally employed an eye test and preached the values of intangibles that would hopefully translate into big numbers in those categories. All of that changed about a decade ago when Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane adopted a more mathematical philosophy that broke the game down into a formula to enable his small market team to compete with league royalty (namely, the Yankees and Red Sox).As a result, Beane became a bit of an enigmatic "mad scientist," and the film attempts to demystify that by documenting Oakland's 2002 season; coming off of a crushing postseason defeat and an off-season that saw them lose three star players, Beane (Pitt) discovers Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a number-crunching Yale graduate with a degree in economics. Brand has developed a system that relies on deep sabermetrics and probabilities, and Beane takes a gamble on the wild approach by putting together a team of cast-off players whose value has been underrated by teams who have relied on the more traditional approach.
Part biography (the film tosses in scenes from Beane's family life, including his relationship with a 12-year-old daughter), part sports flick, "Moneyball"is a fascinating reinvigoration of the tired underdog story. Tough it follows the typical plot trajectory for this type of film (early season struggles give way to success after Beane makes some unorthodox decisions), it focuses more on the minutiae of the wheeling and dealing behind the game itself, which reveals the scope of the conflict. The A's contending against richer, more talented teams is secondary, as Beane is the ultimate disrupter an apple cart that's filled with a century of tradition and established methods.
Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin crafted the screenplay here from Michael Lewis's book. Sorkin's presence will immediately recall his work on "The Social Network,"which is somewhat valid. Just as that film cut through all of the techno-babble associated with the rise of Facebook, "Moneyball"diffuses the sabermetric jargon and finds the human element to the story here. Though I'm not sure it fully transcends the boundaries of a "sports movie," it does exhibit universal values of faith, determination, and loyalty accompany its pleasing rags-to-riches tropes.
It's also a film about a misunderstood, somewhat tortured visionary in Beane, who is astutely realized by Pitt. He's doggedly cool in his interactions with those that surround him--his players, coaches, and even other general managers. Privately, however, he's haunted by the failure of his own career as a journeyman; once considered a can't-miss "five tool" prospect, he languished in mediocrity for a few seasons before becoming a scout. You can feel this failure motivating the character as you watch him stew down in the bowels of stadiums, grinding his teeth with every loss. His vendetta and vision are intensely personal, as if he's deployed his newfound maverick methods to destroy the system that failed him.
Guiding him is the whiz-kid, Brand, a role that exhibits some growth and maturity for Jonah Hill, whose career has mostly been defined by sophomoric comedies. He holds his own with the veteran Pitt and acts as a sort of conscience for his boss, who effectively shows him the ropes on the fly. The two form an interesting duo, as viewers can find an interesting dynamic between the two; one is a jock, the other is essentially a nerd (and Hill is a perfect fit for this, right down to his physical appearance), and the two work in concert in a way that feels completely unforced. Beane's sincerity and trust in his new apprentice is never in question, so we avoid the usual personality clashes and syrupy moments of understanding between them.
These two are surrounded by some fine characters and performances from the likes of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who melts into the role of embattled manager Art Howe. Brent Jennings turns in sneakily funny turn as coach Ron Washington, who is still reaping the benefits of Moneyball years later, having guided the Rangers to two World Series. There seems to be a humorous subplot here involving Washington coaching catcher-turned-first basemen Scott Hatteberg that may have ended up on the cutting room floor, which is probably just as well, as the film only really capitulates to being a baseball movie once.
That sequence comes near the climax and chronicles the A's historic 20 game winning streak, which climaxes in a game full of twists, turns, and high drama that ultimately validates Beane's unusual approach. And while this is a well-done, smartly edited sequence, it wisely gives way to the film's true climax, which finds Beane informing Brand that this historic streak means nothing if they don't win the last game of the season. "They'll write us off," he says, and he is, of course, correct--such is the nature of sports.
However, Beane's final lesson might be learning that even this perception is wrong; just as he proves his skeptics wrong by shattering their outdated models of business, he must figure out that it's possible to hit a home run without even knowing it. The denouement here is quite interesting in the sense that the film is so insistent on finding triumph in defeat, which is fine. Many underdog stories don't end in a literal triumph, but the one "Moneyball" intones is a bit subversive and perhaps ironic, as we learn that his methods may have only been co-opted to make the rich richer while he's still in search of that elusive final win.Still, despite those somewhat muddied waters, this is a smart, captivating portrait of an atypical revolutionary figure. Billy Beane may never get that World Series ring, but he'll be remembered as someone who leveled an unfair playing field for America's past-time, and "Moneyball" is a fine reflection of that. It also makes it difficult to dislike scrappy teams like the A's--not that I really needed any more of a reason to root against the twin evil empires nestled in New York and Boston.
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