September 27, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

Sports movies are a dime a dozen. Each year we are sure to get a couple of them covering a variety of sports. Just recently we got the first major release of an MMA movie with Warrior,but like so many that have come before it, for better or worse, it feels quite familiar. The fighting movie does have an interesting familial element to help it break free, but all too often you see where they are going and the game is ultimately a metaphor for the lead's conflict. However, some of them break through and become something special, like Field of Dreams, and then there are movies like Moneyball. Going into this, I had no idea what to expect and I cannot say I had high hopes.

I like baseball, a Mets fan since I was a youngster, I know the dizzying highs and the depressingly hopeless lows as I have followed my favorite team in my preferred sport (too many lows of late, if you ask me). At the same time, I am not a stat head. I don't know what half these numbers mean and it seems like there are new ones every year. Sure, I keep an eye on the big ones, but that is about it.

What does this have to do with Moneyball? Well, it probably points towards the reason I may not are for it, as well as what probably made it rather difficult to adapt. The movie is based on the book that tells of the changing thought processes in front offices as it comes to stats and how they are used. All things considered, a dry subject if there ever was one. You might as well give everyone a mathematics text book.

Moneyball is not an exciting movie, but it is an interesting one. It is also surprisingly involving, at least partly due to a solid performance by Brad Pitt. It is a movie that definitely includes the behind the curtain stats talk, but it is written with real people, plus instead of playing like a numbers game, it is given an element of change, about people introducing a new manner of thinking to the game, thus revolutionizing the game.

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, a once promising ballplayer whose big league career was short and uneventful, who has reinvented himself as a general manager for the Oakland A's. As the movie opens we are introduced to Beane who is haunted by his past as a player and is watching his team lose in the playoffs and see his stars lured away to bigger pocketed teams who have opened up the coffers that Oakland does not have and cannot compete with.

As he and his staff think about the next season, they have to figure out how they are going to replace the production that has just walked out the door. This is where the thinking process begins to change, spurred on by a chance meeting with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill playing a renamed version of Paul Depodesta), a Yale grad who sees stats differently and believes a winning team cam be built no with overpriced stars but with the aging, the under appreciated, and the cast off. The analogy is made to the Island of Misfit Toys, and it certainly seems accurate.

The middle chunk of the film follows the team as we see the stats calculations put to practice, the the chagrin of many, including the team manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who does not want the front office interfering with how he fields his team.

Moneyball is an interesting excursion into the business side of the sport. It is a movie for those who love stats and the way they can influence the game while doing nothing directly related tot he feel of the game. It is about personalities and what drives them to do what they do. It is about hope in a new way of doing things and the far that if it fails it can ruin careers.

Bennett Miller directs what is just his second feature, following 2005's Capote. He has a keen sense of direction, keeping the movie focused and never letting it stray too far into world of numbers. It also does not hurt that the screenplay was co-written by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. It is a smart screenplay with a couple of very nicely staged pieces, highlighted by Pitt working other executives over the phone while trying to secure a relief pitcher in trade.

I expected something dry and got something that had touching moments, comedy, and high drama. It is not your traditional baseball movie. It is a story that should really be unfilmable. This is a hard sell sort of movie and really shouldn't have much in the way of mainstream appeal, but they found a way to do it. The story works and the cast turn in some fine performances.

I hesitate to call it Pitt's best performance as some others have said, but there is something about it hat is just really good. He is not playing Pitt, he actually is Beane, or at least the cinematic equivalent. There is a tense person in there, someone who is driven by failure of the past and a desire not to lose again. Beyond the lead, Jonah Hill also delivers fine work, just in a much more subdued fashion. His nerdy, non-athlete is someone with little confidence to start, it is interesting seeing his character develop.

The bottom line is that Moneyball is a good movie. It is probably better than it has any right to be. It is a fascinating look at what triggered a shift in the way people look at the numbers and the way teams get constructed and the people who helped bring about the change.

Speaking of stats and game numbers, as I write this, I am keeping am eye on my Mets and watching Jose Reyes fight for the batting title, which they have to go out to six decimal places to show the difference between him and Ryan Braun of the Brewers. Fascinating.


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Anonymous said...

"Moneyball is not an exciting movie, but it is an interesting one." I completely agree. Great review!

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