Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Moneyball" will be more admired than loved, unless baseball is your game


Moneyball (2011) 
133 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B


"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" asks Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Unless you have a love for the game (and statistics), "Moneyball" will be more admired than loved, as it tends toward the dry and talky side. But hey, there are no sports movie clich├ęs, like the underdogs winning The Big Game and cheering with fireworks. For any critic's money, that is bigger than peanuts. Based on Michael Lewis' non-fiction best-seller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, whip-smart screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin have not written an on-the-field baseball movie but a behind-the-scenes drama about the business and strategical side of the sport, otherwise known as sabermetrics. 


"Moneyball" opens with 2001 footage of the Oakland A's season ending with their loss to the New York Yankees. The team's major losing streak expands: star players Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, and Jason Isringhausen were traded to other teams, demanded salaries were unaffordable, and the budget was smaller than any MLB team. In 2002, former Major League player Billy Beane changed the game as the G.M. With a budgetary handicap, Beane had to assemble a competitive team. He was paying $200,000 for wins while the majority of teams were paying over $1 million, and assigning inexpensive players that could make it to first base rather than spending millions on baseball superstars. Paying a visit to the Cleveland Indians head office to negotiate a trade, Beane finds his brain behind the operation in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a 25-year-old Yale economics grad and player analyst. Immediatedly hired, Brand knows his numbers and believes in buying runs, not players. Beane takes Brand's recommendations in using undervalued players over the team's owner, talent scouts, and manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He never watches the games but definitely believes in Brand's theory to break the losing streak. 

The true story lets history speak for itself, but for those unaware of how the A's season unfolded, "Moneyball" still holds anticipation. With straightfoward but slick direction from second feature director Bennett Miller ("Capote"), the film lets Zaillian and Sorkin play ball. The writing has that sparkling Sorkin-esque rhythm, smart and witty without sounding stilted or overwritten. As fluidly sharp as its words are, the film's movement is more uneven. Miller takes a while for anything to really build, swinging from Beane's office and the clubhouse, his family life, to inside his head when he could have been a pro baller. But, like Beane realizes, winning isn't everything. 

As Billy Beane, Brad Pitt is on the money; his handsome, goldenboy quality has a perfect parallel to Robert Redford in "The Natural," and a few facial wrinkles don't hurt. This may be Mr. Pitt's show all the way, being charismatic and nuanced in performance, and appealing even when chewing tobacco. But boxed in as a generational John Belushi/John Candy type, Hill shows us that he can do more than just the funny, chubby shtick and hold his own opposite Pitt. He's the film MVP, understating the role of Peter Brand as a green young man in the working world who knows his numbers, and his deer-caught-in-the-headlight looks are hilarious. Together, Pitt and Brand trade off the film's most enjoyably quick banter. Philip Seymour Hoffman isn't given a lot to do or say as team manager Howe, but merely a look says more than dialogue. In a single scene, Robin Wright and director Spike Jonze show up as Beane's civil ex-wife and her new, socially awkward beau. 13-year-old Kerris Dorsey, as Beane's 12-year-old daughter Casey, proves herself an unaffected child actor, and her scenes with Pitt add the most warmth. In fact, the father-daughter subplot could have been given more screen time. But in the film's mind, Casey's song sung and written for her dad was her 2002 original, not the debut single known as "The Show" by singer Lenka in 2008. 

Technically sound, Wally Pfister's cinematography is crisp, and the music score by Mychael Danna is uniquely composed to uplift. Though not quite a home run to be fully accessible for general audiences, "Moneyball" is a smart, businesslike look at an esoteric subject even if you don't know a doubleheader from a double play. For those that need more reassurance: it's as much about game plays as Sorkin's scripted "The Social Network" was about writing HTML code. 

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