Moneyball(10/3/2011)

On October 6, 2002 I was overjoyed watching my beloved Minnesota Twins win the American League Divisional series game five in a dramatic 5 to 4 victory.  It was a short lived celebration, as the team would eventually lose in the ALCS to the Anaheim Angels, but it still seemed sweet at the time.  Unfortunately that was the last and only time I’ve seen the Twins win a post-season series, because every other time they make it to the playoffs they seem to get matched up in the first round with the goddamn New York Yankees and they lose in an embarrassing rout.  In fact I’ve seen the Twins lose to the Yankees the divisional series four times since 2002, and every time I’ve cursed the Yankees for buying their way into the World Series.  Such is the plight of loving a small market team.  What I never considered was that the team the Twins were playing on that fateful day was another small market team that had struggled with their own Yankees-related demons and that very season they had found a system that could very well have proven to be a boon for small market teams.  That team was the Oakland A’s, and the season that led them to that matchup with the team is chronicled in a new film called Moneyball.

Adapted by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian from the book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball focuses on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Oakland A’s General Manager who was facing the daunting task of replacing Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi after losing both to Boston and New York respectively in free agency.  Frustrated with the miniscule pay roll he has to work with, Beane goes to the A’s owner Stephen Schott (played by the evil video game magnate Bobby Kotick) only to be told that the payroll isn’t going up and that he’s simply going to have to make do.  Unsatisfied with this, Beane starts looking for a new direction but finds himself surrounded by scouts and managers who simply can’t think differently.  Finally, on a failed trading visit with the Cleveland Indians, Beane runs into a junior analyst named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who tells him about the theories that we’ve come to call sabremetrics.  Intrigued, Beane hires Brand as his assistant manager and employs sabermetrics in the acquisition of three undervalued players in an experiment he believes could change baseball forever.

For those unfamiliar with sabermetrics, it’s a system that disregards the traditional measures of a player like batting averages and RBIs, and instead looks at less conventional statistics like OBP (on base percentage) while also disregarding the steal as a means of advancing runs.  That’s about as detailed as the movie gets about Beane’s methods and there’s also not a lot of in game footage showing the methods in action.  That’s the thing about this story, it’s all about quietly winning games without a lot of flash, and consequently the on field action isn’t going to be all that dramatic for the most part.  The focus is strictly on what goes on behind the scenes and that isn’t really something that we’ve seen all that often in film and a lot of what’s seen in enlightening.  In particular the film does a great job of showing just how ridiculous some of the criteria used by talent scouts was in the pre-sabermetrics era.  There are stories of scouts overlooking Kevin Youkilis because they thought his batting stance was odd in spite of his statistical success and also of players being skipped over for having ugly girlfriends, and act that supposedly speaks poorly of their confidence.  It’s hard to imagine any other industry making wildly expensive acquisitions based on such biased and irrational reasoning, but such silliness persevered because baseball as an institution is wildly averse to change.

That’s what makes Moneyball so topical; it’s all about the challenges involved in trying to achieve change. In this sense the film could be viewed as a broad allegory for the trials and tribulations of the Obama administration.  Beane has inherited a mess and everyone seems to realize that the team is in need of a new strategy, but when he actually brings new ideas to the table he encounters hostility on all sides and is impeded every step of the way and isn’t supported as well as he should have been by the like minded people around him.  When change finally does come and it doesn’t produce immediate and recognizable results almost everyone around him is ready to throw him under the bus and return to the familiar.  Sound familiar?  The film also needs to deal with the fact that positive change isn’t always immediately recognizable and the people who benefit from influential ideas aren’t always the people who create them and risk their reputations on them.

All of that interested me on an intellectual level, but I could have just as easily gotten most of those insights from reading Michael Lewis’ book or maybe seeing a documentary on the subject, unfortunately the film falls short of expectations on a number of fronts.  In particular I feel like the film struggled to find a way to handle the somewhat anticlimactic ending to the A’s season.  As a result we get a rather protracted dénouement in which characters make long and on the nose speeches about what everything we just saw meant while also throwing in a random corny metaphor about a Youtube video.

There are other slow spots in the movie, but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that the film’s screenplay isn’t without many great moments as well.  This is an Aaron Sorkin joint after all, so there are a lot of really strong lines spread throughout the film, though they don’t come quite as fast and furious as they did in The Social Network or in Sorkin’s television work.  That’s partly by design; the characters in this film do not come from the same highly educated east coast world that the characters in Sorkin’s other projects and that is reflected in the relatively reigned in dialogue.  That might also be the result of Bennett Miller’s decision to direct this film in a rather slow paced and somewhat icy fashion that underplays a lot of the traditional sports-movie trappings that this could have fallen into.  The film feels more like a business movie than a baseball movie, a decision that is wholly appropriate but which doesn’t necessarily bring the material to life either.

Most of the film’s cast does a good job with the material, particularly Jonah Hill, who is allowed to really branch out as an actor and deliver a mostly dramatic performance.  Phillip Seymour Hoffman also gives a nice performance as the team’s on field manager, Hoffman could probably play this small role in his sleep but it was still nice to see an actor of that caliber playing the part just the same.  However, I cannot be as kind to Brad Pitt’s performance and might be tempted to call it one of the film’s weakest elements.  Pitt seems to be a bit out of his element trying to portray Beane as a sort of unassuming blue collar figure and it just doesn’t come off very natural and almost feels like a slightly more reigned in version of his performance in the film Inglourious Basterds.  Perhaps it was a bad idea to cast one of the world’s biggest movie stars in a role like this, but I still think that the ultimate responsibility falls on Pitt.  The performance isn’t bad to the point of distraction, and the film does ultimately overcome it, but it is more of a liability than an asset.

Moneyball is a movie that I can recommend but only with a number of caveats.  I feel like my ultimate enjoyment of the film was at least partly sparked by my interest in the subject matter and while I think that that most elements of the film’s production are in place for the making of a solid movie, I don’t think it ever really has that spark that would take it to the next level.  There are too many small problems like Pitt’s performance and the protracted ending that make this feel like a film that isn’t becoming of its pedigree, but there is enough there to make for two interesting hours of cinema, I just feel like it had every opportunity to be more than that.

*** out of four

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