Monday, September 26, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

Moneyball ****
Directed by: Bennett Miller.
Written by: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin based on the book by Michael Lewis.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Robin Wright (Sharon), Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg), Stephen Bishop (David Justice), Brent Jennings (Ron Washington), Ken Medlock (Grady Fuson), Tammy Blanchard (Elizabeth Hatteberg), Jack McGee (John Poloni), Vyto Ruginis (Pittaro), Nick Searcy (Matt Keough), Glenn Morshower (Ron Hopkins), Casey Bond (Chad Bradford), Nick Porrazzo (Jeremy Giambi), Kerris Dorsey (Casey Beane).

How do you compete in Major League Baseball when you’re a GM whose owner has set your player salary budget below $40 million per season, and the New York Yankees are spending well over $100 million? You can’t possibly outspend the Yankees or the Red Sox or any of the other major teams, and as Billy Beane finds out, there’s no loyalty in baseball. It’s a business, and players will go where they can make the most money. After a terrific 2011 season, that saw the Oakland A’s make it to the playoffs (hard to do in baseball), their three best players leave for greener pastures, and there’s nothing he can do about it. While trying to replace these players, he meets Peter Brand, who has a new way of looking at players – a way that flies in the face of everything other teams are doing. He wants to ignore all the stats that GMs normally look at, ignore their fielding, ignore their physicality and off field behavior and look at just one state – on base percentage. The more people get on base, the more runs you score. The more runs you score, the more you win. By looking at players in this dispassionate, scientific way, Brand believes that the A’s can actually build a winning team. And Beane, who has nothing to lose, decides to trust him.

Moneyball is a different type of sports movie – one where the emphasis is not on the games being played on the field, but on all the talk that is happening off the field. I can’t think of another movie where the GM is the star of the show, but that is precisely what makes Moneyball seem so fresh and original. Never has so much talk about statistics seem so exciting.

Billy Beane was a failed big league player – a kid who right out of high school looked to be the next great player – he could field, he could throw, he could run, he could hit and he could hit for power, and those are the five tools every scout looks for. But for whatever reason, Beane never really made it as a major leaguer. That is key in determining why Beane does what he does as the GM of the A’s – he knows all the smoke being blown up his ass by his scouts is just that. Every one of them would have loved to have a young Billy Beane on their team, and every one of them would have been wrong. When he asked Brand if he would taken him Beane in the first round, Brand tells him he would have taken him in the 9th round, offered no signing bonus, and expected the kid to accept his scholarship to Stanford. That easily could have been the better thing for Beane in the long run, but dollar signs flashed in his eyes, and he took the easy way – and he failed as a result.

Brad Pitt is perfectly cast as Beane. He is funny and charming, and for much of the running time you think that Pitt is simply putting on another one of his movie star performances – something he can do better than just about anyone else right now. But Pitt’s performance is sneaky, much more subtle than the thousand watt smile and easy charm lead you to believe. He is fiercely determined, hates losing and under all that exterior charm, lies a stats nerd, not unlike Brand himself. Pitt wins you over, and then goes deeper than you expect him to. The other major performance in the movie is by Jonah Hill as Brand, who doesn’t have the charm that Beane has, but has the intelligence. He knows the stats inside out, and he knows what they mean, and how to use them. He needs someone like Beane to trust him, and get the deals done that need to get done. The two help each other out, learning for each other. As for Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the A’s manager, what can you say? He’s grouchy and pissed off in every one of his scenes, and while it’s not a deep performance, he does what is required of him.

The screenplay is one of the best of the year. Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin are two Hollywood heavyweights of screenwriting, and together they have crafted a movie that doesn’t skimp on the details of what they are doing, but still has dialogue that sings. Moneyball almost plays like a heist movie, where the plan is set in motion, and then carried forward. Like something like Martin Scorsese’s Casino, you see the inner workings behind something we all know, but never really thought about.

For director Bennett Miller, Moneyball is a triumph, just like his breakthrough film Capote was. That film was deeper and darker than Moneyball, but this one is more purely entertaining. He keeps the movie humming along at its brisk pace, never getting lost in details or letting all the talk bog the film down. This is a step forward for him, even if they movie does run a scene or two too long in the end.

For the most part, I have grown tired of sports movies – especially underdog stories of teams that shouldn’t have been able to compete, who somehow defy the odds. But while Moneyball is one of those stories, it is different, because it’s about how they built this underdog team, and how they did not consider themselves underdogs. True, the Oakland A’s have not won the World Series under Billy Beane – there is still a point where having a hell of lot of money trumps sound strategy – but he still changed the way the game was played, if not on the field, then in the boardrooms.

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