Saturday, March 3, 2012


*** included in Brian's Best and Worst of 2011***

I've always been a big fan of baseball statistics.  You know the old saying, "those who can do, those who can't obsessively memorize meaningless numbers."  I don't know exactly what it is about baseball stats that has always enthralled me.  Sure, there's the feeling of superiority you get when you have trivia answers carved into your mind, but it goes deeper than that.  I've always liked looking at numbers because it helps me discover things that I might have never appreciated otherwise.  For instance, did you know that former pitcher Bret Saberhagen once finished a season with more wins than walks allowed?  That's ridiculous!  It's amazing!  It's unheard of...unless you do a Google search.  Not surprisingly, I have been interested in sabermetrics for a while now and was eager to see Moneyball when I heard that the book was being made into a movie.  As exciting as statistical analysis is to me, I recognize that the subject could very well make for a dreadfully dull movie experience for 99% of all people, alive or dead.  And yet, Moneyball has been widely acclaimed.  How the hell did they pull that off?

In short, the answer to that question is, "By making smart choices."  By balancing the information that baseballs fans enjoy with a universally understandable dramatic story, the filmmakers made a surprisingly appealing sports movie that features surprisingly little focus on the games being played.

Let's look at the fan stuff first.  When the Oakland Athletics ended their season in the 2001 playoffs, general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) knew that his team, which had played so well that year, was going to be pretty terrible in 2002.  The team's three best players were all free agents, and Oakland is a small market team, which meant that the team's best players were definitely going to sign lucrative deals with bigger market teams, like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. 
I think I see the cause of Oakland's woe: there's an attendance problem
Beane had three gaping holes to fill in his team, and he did not have the money to sign equally talented players, nor did he have up-and-coming youngsters ready to fill those spots.  There was no way on Earth that Beane would be able to build a competitive team, at least not by using conventional baseball logic.  Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a quiet number cruncher with an economics degree.  Using sabermetrics, Brand saw potential in players that other teams undervalued.  Brand believed that the Athletics could field a competitive team, but they would have to favor players that specialize in some of the less flashy aspects of the game.
Like telephone courtesy
Billy and Peter build a team that can theoretically win, despite loud and frequent criticism from the media, baseball scouts, and even Oakland's own manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  By following sabermetrics, Billy and Peter were ignoring the way players had been valued for the last hundred years of baseball.  If they failed, which pretty much everybody expected, Billy and Peter would be job-hunting before the end of August and the whole sabermetrics thing would be dismissed.  However, if they managed to field a winning team made from under-appreciated scraps from around the league, they would change baseball forever.  Of course, to do that, they actually have to win...
Pictured above: optimism

That's the somewhat-interesting-if-you're-a-baseball-fan plot.  For casual fans or baseball ignoramuses, though, there is still a rich story.  This isn't just another story of the unlikely team becoming impossibly successful --- this is the story of a man who has essentially bet his entire livelihood on an untried and ridiculed concept, and how that stress affects his life.  This isn't about the 2002 Oakland Athletics.  This is about Billy Beane's quest to show value in people thought to be disposable by everyone else and prove that the total can be greater than the perceived sum of its parts.

To pull off that sort of "man against the system" story, though, you need an effective lead actor, since the film will inevitably focus on him.  Luckily, Brad Pitt continues his string of interesting roles (which essentially describes his post-Mr. and Mrs. Smith career) in Moneyball.  This role could have been horribly overacted, because so much of it involves self-doubt and depression.  Pitt conveys most of this through nonverbals --- he seems to favor staring --- which is nice, because he almost never raises his voice, which means there are no Pacino-esque moments.  In many ways, Pitt does his best to channel Robert Redford at his smartest and most charming in this role, and he is largely successful.  Pitt has better comic timing than Redford though, and a lot of Pitt's recurring mannerisms --- like incessantly eating on-screen --- shine through enough to make this more than simply an homage to Redford.
He can't close his mouth.  It's filled with sunflower seeds.
I seriously loved Pitt's performance.  It's underplayed, but extremely effective.  I also genuinely enjoyed his interactions with Kerris Dorsey, who played his daughter.  Speaking of Dorsey, I was surprised to find that I liked her.  Most of the time, the child actors who play characters visiting their "weekend parent" tend to annoy me.  Dorsey was pretty likable, despite some unfortunate bangs, and surprised with her musical talents, too.
A lot of attention was given to Jonah Hill's first dramatic role, and he's definitely solid in it.  He's likable as a fish out of water, but I don't understand the degree of recognition he got for this role.  Does he deserve credit for his work here?  Absolutely, if only for the wheeling and dealing phone scene.  I disagree with his Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, though; he was good, but there were better choices available.  Philip Seymour Hoffman didn't add a whole lot to this movie; he certainly wasn't bad, but the role was a lot simpler than he typically plays.  Robin Wright doesn't have much screen time, but she doesn't add much anyway, which is about par for the rest of the cast.  This movie lives and dies on Brad Pitt's performance.
He pinkie swears it'll be good, though

Moneyball is only the second full-length feature film from Bennett Miller (the other is Capote, which might explain Hoffman's presence), but he has an excellent grasp of the drama in this tale.  As I have already mentioned more than once, Moneyball could have --- maybe even should have --- been an awful viewing experience for most people.  It takes the slowest American spectator sport and gets rid of the action, focusing on politics and number-crunching instead.  And he managed (along with an Aaron Sorkin screenplay co-credit) to make this film feel like a personal journey of a man trying to prove his worth.  I also loved how he used Pitt in this movie; he was unafraid of silence on the screen, and that made for some surprisingly touching moments.

The best thing about Moneyball is that the events portrayed here happened recently enough for many audience members to recall the ending.  I knew how the A's season ended in 2002, and yet I never felt a sense of dramatic letdown.  That's because the drama is in Beane, and not entirely based on the fate of his team.  This is just a smartly-written, well-acted, and well-directed picture.

And if you were wondering what the song Billy Beane's daughter was singing was, here's the original version:


  1. Brad Pitt was phenomenal in this movie. I love when actors trust silence. It is such a bold/confidence move and pays dividends when used correctly. Less is often more, and Pitt proved it in this performance, as he carried a movie that should not have worked for reasons you described perfectly. Great review, though I liked the whole a bit less.

  2. It may not feel quite like the classic baseball movie others have achieved, but it’s certainly pleasant enough to be enjoyable even by non-sports fan, and features great performances from Hill and Pitt. Good review Brian.