Monday Morning Review: 'Moneyball' Does The Unthinkable By Making Baseball Interesting Again

Monday Morning Review: 'Moneyball' Does The Unthinkable By Making Baseball Interesting Again

Sep 26, 2011

Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a new feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.


 
Multiple critics described Moneyball as The Social Network for baseball movies. Cramming a multi-faceted film into a specific category like that is ill advised, but I have to admit, the analogy’s pretty accurate. 
 
Fincher’s Network, as you know, really isn’t about Facebook at all. Granted, the movie wouldn’t exist without the behemoth of a Web site. But Network resonated because the director and his Oscar-winning screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, used the site’s painful birth as a launch pad to explore such universal topics as friendship, greed, loneliness, corruption, entrepreneurship, betrayal, and our society’s inherent desire to be recognized and liked. 
 
Similarly, Bennett Miller’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s revolutionary book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” has very little to do with the act of playing baseball. Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s who’s brought to energetic life by a charismatic Brad Pitt, doesn’t bother watching the games. Why should we?
 
When Miller does call our attention to Oakland A’s baseball, it’s usually showing on a television set in the background or being broadcast over a handheld radio, as in the film’s expertly edited opening scenes.  Aside from occasional highlight footage and a few shots of players practicing, there’s very little game play in Miller’s film … and you don’t miss it for one minute. 
 
All of the action in Moneyball takes place between contests, where executives finagle for larger budgets, move players around their ballparks like pawns on a chessboard, and hope they have enough pieces in place to still be playing on the final day of the season. In Moneyball, the crack of the bat, the traditional seventh-inning stretch, and the smell of peanuts and Cracker Jacks have been replaced by riveting discussions of year-to-year statistical projections, on-base percentages … “This Bill James bullshit,” as one crusty old scout calls it.
 
“Adapt or die,” Billy blurts out in response, and it becomes not just the film’s mantra but also Miller’s warning to fellow sports films. Savvy fans demand more from their athletic dramas, primarily because films like Moneyball (and, to a lesser extent, Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior) dig beyond the sport in question and continue to raise the bar of audience expectation.
 
No, Moneyball isn’t your father’s baseball movie. A scrappy team of loveable losers doesn’t win our hearts by triumphing in the “Big Game.” Roy Hobbs doesn’t knock the cover off of the ball (though you will marvel at how much Pitt continues to resemble Natural-era Robert Redford as he ages). Every time I think of potentially disgruntled Moneyball audience members wondering where the baseball action is, I flash back to the A’s senior scouts sitting around the table, talking classic swings, body types and asking who Fabio is as the game passes them by. I’ve seen Moneyball twice now, and the “Fabio” line scored a huge laugh each time. But I’d rather audiences stop and realize what it’s saying about the vast disconnect that currently exists between the game and the people paid to understand it. That’s a large part of the reason why Miller chooses to open Moneyball with that memorable Mickey Mantle quote: “It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know about the game you’ve been playing all your life.” 
 
 
Moneyball may be set in the world of professional baseball, but it’s more a story about finding the courage the stand up for one’s convictions. It’s a character drama about undermatched, fed-up protagonists choosing to swim against the current because they want to leave a lasting impression on the industry in which they’ve chosen to work. 
 
For Pitt, that industry is acting, and Moneyball marks another large step away from the “pretty boy” persona Pitt still combats. In my opinion, Pitt couldn’t play Billy Beane five years ago – at least, not nearly as convincingly as he plays him today. It goes beyond the actor -- now a father -- being able to connect with young Kerris Dorsey as Billy’s adolescent daughter, Casey, in a handful of touching scenes. It’s about the actor being able to sell us on defeat. 
 
When we meet Beane, he’s rebounding from his team’s jarring loss in the American League Divisional Series to the New York Yankees. Throughout the film, Beane wears all of his failures -- the blown seasons, the individual deals gone sour, the pro career that eluded him  -- on his sleeve. And Pitt, perhaps because he has faced a few more rejections over the years, understands how to let that discontent linger on his interesting face. He places just as much importance in the small victories as he does the major losses … which is why it’s so important for him to lure Ricardo Rincon away from the Cleveland Indians in one of the film’s most dramatic trades. Billy understands that the move will improve his team ahead of a playoff push. But he also, in the back of his mind, wants to get back at Indians GM Mark Shapiro (Reed Diamond) for slighting him earlier in the film because, as Billy admits to Peter, he never gets over the losses.
 
“I’ve been in this game a long time. I’m not in it for the records. I’m not in it for the ring. That’s when people get hurt,” Billy confesses to his protégé, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). And given the amount of Oscar attention Pitt currently is attracting for his Moneyball turn, it’s easy to imagine him talking about the trophy that so far has eluded him. Could this be the year the veteran actor’s still standing when the final “out” (vote) of the last game (Oscar race) is recorded?
 
It’s a forceful performance from Pitt, commanding in every scene without being showy. Hill’s also receiving an equal amount of credit for his take on Beane’s cohort, but it’s what Hill doesn’t show in the role – confidence, personality, a sense of humor – that makes his performance special. 
 
Audiences still link Hill to comedy, thanks to his identity-defining parts in Superbad, Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. They’ll likely think differently of this still-young actor after Moneyball, because he delivers a subdued performance that’s precisely what the story demands. When Peter first meets Billy, he’s instantly intimidated and far too terrified to explain his revolutionary way of thinking. He actually follows Beane to a deserted parking lot because he’s worried people will hear his ideas and reflexively reject his statistics-heavy method of thinking. Peter fears the ancient scouts sitting around the table, without realizing how terrified they are that Brand’s system will eliminate their “medieval” way of thinking. 
 
There’s an exhilarating undercurrent to the scene where Billy, sick of butting heads with stubborn manager Art Howe (a pitch-perfect Philip Seymour Hoffman), starts dumping all-star players in a virtual fire sale. Billy tells Peter he’s shaking things up. In reality, he’s placing full trust in Brand and his revolutionary system. Hill tells us in an interview that this component of the story -- having someone shine a light on you when you are ready to excel -- is what attracted him to the Moneyball script, and it’s on full display in that interchange between Pitt and Hill. 
 
 
To that end, Moneyball also tells a story of obsessions. When A’s owner Steve Schott asks Billy if he trusts this controversial system of underpaying troublesome baseball players, Beane says it’s why he’s there, in the ballpark, day after day. 
 
Yet as Miller reminds us in a small but brilliant scene, the day-to-day minutia over which Billy obsesses hardly registers with those outside of Oakland’s ballpark, The Coliseum. When Billy stops by his ex-wife’s (Robin Wright) apartment to pick up their daughter, she and her new partner humor him with baseball small talk. But they’re so far removed from the situation, the boyfriend mispronounces “Giambi” -- the last name of the player who created such a massive hole in Billy’s roster and led to the GM reversing his way of thinking. Such is the strange case with obsessions. What’s deathly important to you can be insignificant to someone else … even someone you call a family member.
 
That doesn’t mean baseball is completely overlooked in Miller’s excellent drama, or that the sport is insignificant to the larger story being told. There might be three full scenes of actual, in-game action in the entire 133-minute production. And the longest sequence of actual baseball – the nearly-tragic contest between the A’s and Royals that almost prevented Oakland from setting baseball’s all-time consecutive win streak -- exists solely to show how baseball’s romantic notions of superstitions and jinxes are as foolish as they are necessary. 
 
But when Miller opts to show the graceful game, he unleashes cinematographer Wally Pfister, whose gorgeous photography turns Miller’s baseball scenes into Norman Rockwell paintings. I also appreciate how often Miller pulls his camera back to show the entire ballpark, photographed like a cathedral with rows of empty seats patiently waiting the faithful fans.  
 
And when the A’s finally start winning -- even mounting that record-setting, 20-game win streak -- we aren’t necessarily rooting for the undervalued Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) or the past-his-prime David Justice (Stephen Bishop). We’re rooting for Billy. We’re rooting for Peter. And we’re rooting for moneyball … both the revolutionary baseball practice and Miller’s winning crowd-pleaser.
 

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