Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Base Hit: MONEYBALL


Baseball may be a sport, but Moneyball is not really a sports movie. To be sure, it’s based on the book by Michael Lewis about the modestly budgeted Oakland Athletics’ 2002 season in which, against the objections of manager Art Howe, their general manager Billy Beane tried out an untested new method of signing players, focusing on statistics more than stars. It was a risky gambit of the kind that makes or breaks careers and, assuming you may not be knowledgeable about recent baseball history, I wouldn’t dare think of telling you the outcome. Though this movie covers the territory of men trying desperately to eke out enough wins to contend for the championship, though it follows training, strategizing, and yes, even some Big Games, this is not a sports movie. It’s a movie about business.

Major League Baseball is a multi-billion dollar business. It’s America’s pastime, and we love to pay for it. The crux of the film is the Athletics’ budget. As a team, they are dramatically outspent by bigger, more financially flush teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. What Beane decides to do is to hire a recent college grad, a Yale economics major to be precise, to crunch the numbers. He, composite character Peter Brand, is a nice, pudgy guy who has never played baseball but loves the number game. He tells Beane that they shouldn’t be focused on buying players, but instead to focus on buying runs. He pours over tapes, analyzes the data, and is confident that he can identify underestimated, and therefore undervalued (and thus affordable) players.

Beane is played by Brad Pitt as a driven man with a desire to do right by his team, but there’s a part of his initiative given over to bucking baseball’s conventional wisdom. We see Little League pictures of him proudly wearing an A’s hat on his sandy blonde hair. We learn that he signed a Major League contract right out of high school, but that his career didn’t pan out. So maybe he has an all-too-personal understanding of the difference between skill and potential, about the damage under- and overvaluing players can do to a team and its members. Maybe there is some of this underdog spirit to his decision to hire the sweet, serious, and shy Brand (a character played quite nicely by Jonah Hill), and in his agreement to find players that no one else wants, like a catcher (Chris Pratt) who can no longer throw, and find new life for their careers.

His underdog spirit carries over into the A’s organization, where Beane finds himself butting heads with the team’s longtime scouts and the recalcitrant manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Moneyball is at its best when it’s a movie about men at work, about people forming partnerships and rivalries along the basis of their business philosophies as much as true friendships, which are forged in the fires of professional camaraderie. This is not a movie with notable female roles, aside from a couple sweet scenes between Beane and his daughter (Kerris Dorsey). This is not even a movie that follows closely too many baseball games, though that makes the ones that are so very satisfying. This is a movie with its most suspenseful scene one of a telephone call with two men in one office negotiating player trades.

The script, which was written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, balances the romance of baseball, the pulse-quickening athleticism and the leisurely pace, with the eggheaded tables, graphs and charts of its endless stats. Is there any other sport so beautiful and so wonkish, so skillful and so nerdy? There’s a tension between the themes that is pleasantly dissonant. The film comes from two terrific screenwriters and sometimes I could feel the uncomfortable tension between their approaches to the material, or maybe I was just trying to pin down blame for why I felt the film a little lumpy, pokily paced and overlong. But director Bennett Miller, of Capote, smoothes things over with his resolutely unshowy visual style, which serves to call attention to the small, likable moments the actors bring out of the well-written scenes. Those scenes are hit out of the park, but the rest of the time I was merely interested, not involved. I was expecting a great baseball movie, a real home run, but what I got was a nice, solid base hit of a middlebrow drama.

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