Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Moneyball" is No Contender

I readily admit that I'm not the best audience for sports movies. I can appreciate sports, but I'm no enthusiast. So when I heard "Moneyball" described as a sports film for non-sports people, it got my hopes up. "Moneyball" follows a pivotal season with the Oakland Athletics baseball team, and focuses on the managers rather than the players, the backroom business rather than the plays on the field. We begin at the end of the 2001 post-season, where general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faces a year of rebuilding his team, after losing his best players to more well-funded franchises. Frustrated with Oakland's smaller bankroll and limited chances at a winning season, he hires on a young economist named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who champions the use of an unconventional statistical analysis approach called sabermetrics.

When taking on highly specialized subject matter that the moviegoing audience may not be familiar with, the usual approach is to make the film about the characters rather than the subject at hand. In this case, "Moneyball" becomes a character study of Billy Beane, a one time major league hopeful who has a very personal stake in the game. And that's the biggest trouble that I had with this film. Billy Beane is nowhere near as interesting as the game, and the more the film focused him, the less and less interest I had in it. Brad Pitt's performance, capturing all his personal frustrations and bouts of disillusionment, is good. Unfortunately, not good enough to keep me invested in Beane or to make me forget for a single moment that I was watching Brad Pitt play a very slight variant on the same slightly-roguish good guy that he usually does in his more commercial pictures. Pitt doesn't make much of any effort to become Billy Beane in this film, but rather Beane is portrayed as, well, Brad Pitt.

It's a pity, because I liked the rest of the film, and all the parts dealing directly with baseball and its statistics did hold my interest. I lived in Oakland briefly, and I know the A's and the Coliseum and much of the surrounding Bay Area landscape. The filmmakers got the details right and built up a real underdog image for the A's and Oakland, without being smarmy or falling back on the usual sports film cliches. Trades happen. Cuts happen. Losses are plentiful. The script by Aaron Sorkin is sharp and intelligent, but still very accessible, cutting through all the media glitz and hero-worship immediately to get to the vital negotiations and wrangling over how to build a better baseball team. Director Bennett Miller does great work capturing the atmosphere of the A's clubhouse, management offices, game days, and media coverage. Best of all, he ratchets up the tension to dizzying levels when the film needs it.

And that claim about "Moneyball" being a sports film for non-sports people? It's a pretty apt. For the first half of the film, I wondered whether we were just going to see Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill talk their way through the whole movie together. With Aaron Sorkin dialogue, and the nice rapport between the two actors, this wouldn't necessarily have been a bad thing, but I suspect that I wasn't the only viewer who was surprised that a film about baseball had so little baseball in it - the games, the players, or really much of anything beyond numbers and strategy. Billy Beane even refuses to watch the A's play, worried that he'll jinx the team, so we initially only hear how they're doing through second-hand accounts. It's only very, very late in the film that the camera really gets up close and personal with the ball game.

This approach works for the story the filmmakers wanted to tell, but I couldn't help thinking that there were a lot of lost opportunities, especially with the cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the A's manager, Art Howe, but only has two brief scenes and a handful of lines, barely enough to allow him to register. Chris Pratt and Stephen Bishop play two of Beane's key picks, and have more narrative emphasis, but hardly more presence or screentime. Even Jonah Hill's character, the memorable Peter Brandt, really only has enough characterization to allow him to operate. The script is a marvel of efficiency with most of the secondary characters, which is why I think it grates so much that one guy gets so much more time and attention.

But as I said, "Moneyball" isn't really about the baseball. It's about Billy Beane. And this is why the film manages to find room for scenes like Beane taking his precocious preteen daughter guitar shopping, and extended flashbacks to his own brief career as a professional ball player, which bloat the film's length to well over two hours and can't help but seem indulgent. I'd have been much happier with the movie if they'd just stuck to the baseball. After watching "Moneyball," I've concluded that the game can be very exciting and entertaining. But Billy Beane, despite the efforts of Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin, and Bennett Miller, is kind of a bore.

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