Monday, September 26, 2011
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Robin Wright, Kerris Dorsey
Running Time: 133 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
What struck me most while watching Moneyball was how little I knew about the events that occurred, and whatever I did know, I had problems remembering. That's sure to be the reaction of anyone watching who's only a casual baseball fan and that's exactly the point. History is written by the winners and the Oakland Athletics didn't win the 2002 World Series despite setting a new Major League record with their 20 game winning streak. In fact, they didn't even make it there. Those aren't spoilers, just statistics in a film that's all about statistics. At one point A's GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) says that people only ever remember your last game and he'd be proven right since what happened that year feels like fresh news to anyone who didn't follow the sport closely or read Michael Lewis' 2003 book that provides the film's basis.
Strapped for cash and unable to compete with other teams, Beane improvised and challenged the way those inside baseball thought about and evaluated the sport, even if many didn't feel like admitting it. Interesting and analytical rather than emotional, it's an incredibly welcome change in a genre prone to sentimental grandstanding where it all comes down to the "big game." There's none of that here. Crisply told and featuring two outstanding performances, this is rousing entertainment at its best. While it'll probably still play best for fans of the sport, it's everybody else who needs to see it and experience the joy of a story told well enough to convert them.
After having star players Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi snatched from the deep pocketed Red Sox and Yankees, Beane is faced with the daunting task of assembling a competitive team despite being the poorest in the league. In a clubhouse full of old school scouts, he's told the answer's what it's always been: Evaluate talent based on their strengths and weaknesses, while factoring in some other intangibles like "look"and "marketability" to obtain the best talent within their price range. It isn't until a trip to Cleveland and an encounter with Yale economics grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) that Beane's introduced to a sabermetric method of scouting created by former factory worker Bill James that relies on objective statistics and data rather than a subjective evaluation of a player's perceived strengths and weaknesses. Objectively, only numbers matter. After hiring Brand away from the Indians as his new assistant GM, Beane devises a plan to recruit players based on their on-base percentage and the radical idea causes an uproar amongst his seasoned scouts and enrages manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Creating an "island of misfit toys" with players no one wants or would take a chance on, Beane and Brand must overcome a rough start and harsh criticism to turn the Athletics into a winning team again.
The film was co-written by Oscar winning Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and you can tell. He seems to be on a role lately with adapting non-fiction material and making it crackle on screen, injecting excitement and suspense into conversations about baseball strategy and statistics just as he did for computer programming and courtroom depositions. He does this by not only letting us know the people having the conversations, but conveys what's at stake for them. Billy Beane's own disappointing Major League playing career informs the story through flashbacks since the scouting system he's pushing almost seems to be a bittersweet retaliation at the one that failed him. Pegged as a can't miss prospect he missed big when the Mets drafted him in 1980 management looking at perceived intangibles instead of numbers.
The idea that Beane's ultimate destiny was never to be a player but do this informs every scene, particularly his interaction with the players. There's one involving his attempts to get through to a 37-year-old David Justice (played memorably by Stephen Bishop) that epitomizes the uphill battle he has and the honesty with which he approaches the challenge. Who knows if the conversation even took place but the magic in their exchange is in wondering how great it would be if it went down just like that. Art Howe comes across as the fool of the picture to the point that even calling him the team's manager is a stretch since all he cares about is a contract renewal as Beane handles much of the coaching. You can't watch without wondering how pissed the real Howe must be about this portrayal. On one hand you sympathize with him being undermined at every turn, yet there's no denying it's hilarious, more so with an angry, deadpan Hoffman playing him. The media attributing the A's remarkable turnaround to his brilliant managerial mind provides the biggest laugh of the movie.
This is Brad Pitt's show, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, he gives one of his best performances and is pretty much a lock for a Best actor nomination. While his role earlier in the year in The Tree of Life may have technically been more challenging from a craft perspective, this is the kind of big movie star turn Academy members will be foaming at the mouth to nominate and there's even a good chance he'll win. Charismatic, likable, sympathetic, funny and carrying the entire film with seemingly effortless charm, the full scope of Brad Pitt has never been as prominently displayed as it is here, and in a big studio picture to boot. The level of difficulty hardly matters since it's a virtual highlight reel of all the talents that make him a star, much like Clooney in Michael Clayton, Cruise in Jerry Maguire or Redford in anything during the '70's. The role seems tailor made for him and and watching how everything turned out it's clear he deserves a lot of credit for trusting his instincts and sticking with a project lingering in development hell for years that many didn't think would see the light of day.
While you can use a permanent marker to write in Pitt for a nomination, it wouldn't surprise me if Jonah Hill goes along for the ride in the supporting category as Paul Brand (who's based on real life A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta). After only testing the dramatic waters a little in smaller films, this is Hill's first full plunge into a serious role and it's a pleasant surprise how excellent he is in it and what an oddly effective pair he and Pitt make. Entering a lion's den of locker room traditionalists, Hill plays Brand as extremely knowledgeable, yet overwhelmed and intimidated by the experience. What's neat is how it does contain some of the comic moments you'd expect from him, but restrained in a completely different context. It's easily the best work he's ever done and the true definition of a supporting performance, anchoring the film and Pitt the whole way through as his right-hand man..
In the far smaller but still fairly important role of A's 1st baseman Scott Hatteberg, Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as the shocked and scared premiere pick of Beane and Brand's who has to step up and become the on-field poster boy of their statistical experiment. The little time spent on Beane's personal life is there to advance the sports story that's unfolding and get to know him, which is how it should be. There's just the right amount of emphasis on that and his ex-wife (Robin Wright) and daughter (Kerris Dorsey) that it doesn't feel like an intrusion meant to soften the character or show how his life is in shambles as a lesser script might.
Director Bennett Millers' handling of the material is tremendous in how he visually simplifies what could have been a dense watch for non-sports fans, with the playing scenes only bolstered by Mychael Danna's anthemic score. At 2 hours and 13 minutes the film arguably could have used a snip or a trim, but it's difficult to feel that way watching it. If anything, it's so level-headed and straightforward it's biggest problem may be that it's the type of film easier to respect than love, but time will tell. When Beane says "it's easy to be romantic about baseball" we expect nothing less than an easy, inspirational conclusion. Instead we get one that leaves you to consider what constitutes "winning" and wondering whether Beane could have been toppled by the very approach he helped popularize. When the title card appeared on screen revealing what became of him since that '02 season, I heard audible gasps of shock from the audience, perhaps a testament to how few still know what he accomplished in a sport primarily concerned with who won the last game.