Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beane Counting


MONEYBALL

Although I don't follow baseball, I agree with Billy Beane in Moneyball: there is a romanticism to the game.  There is a magic to the game, full of figures that become larger than life: from the nobility of Lou Gehrig and the stoicism of Joe DiMaggio right down to the final triumph of the Red Sox after a seemingly eternal World Series drought.  Moneyball is the story of the little team that almost could, and in particular their general manager who decided that the only way to tackle seemingly insurmountable odds against him was to merely change the rules.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has some great players with his Oakland Athletics (or A's in the parlance of sports): with Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi on his roster, the A's make it to the American League Division playoffs against the mighty (and heavily financed) New York Yankees.  We start with the A's coming short...in short, they lose.  Not only do they lose the game (and the chance to go on to the World Series), but they also lose their star players: both Damon and Giambi go for greener pastures.

With a low roster and the smallest budget in baseball, Beane knows he won't be able to buy expensive players.  While on a trip to Cleveland to see about trading players, he comes across Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics grad who has faith in statistics.  More specifically, a belief that a good team can be had with a small budget by crunching the numbers of underused and undervalued players, measuring their statistics (averages, number of hits and runs) and by combining them, come out with a winning team.  Beane is highly intrigued by this idea, and with it a chance to both shake up how things are done and perhaps to get a winning team.

Beane charges full-steam ahead, with only Brand on his side.  His decision to get unorthodox players based not on their looks or their popularity but based solely on the numbers horrifies just around everyone on the A's recruiting board.  The A's manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann) thinks the idea is idiotic and won't play the team Beane champions, instead going with the ones he thinks will win the games.

At first, things go badly for the A's.  The team is floundering and Beane is held to blame. However, after Beane forces Howe's hand to play the team that he and Brand put together, the A's start having a series of success.  The A's start winning game after game after game...going for an all-time record of 20 straight wins, including a dramatic win over the Kansas City Royals, where the A's started out with an eleven-point lead to blowing it into an eleven-all tie and a dramatic homerun in the final inning.  However, Beane won't be satisfied until the A's win the last game...which they don't. 

Coupled with all this are scenes from Beane's private life: both his relationship with his daughter (along with his ex-wife and her new husband--a non-baseball watcher) and from his past as a prospective baseball phenom who gave up a scholarship to Stanford for a chance to play in the Majors only to find his pro ball career coming to an ignoble end. 

Moneyball is a film that is not strictly about baseball, in particular because we don't see all that much baseball playing in the film itself.  Instead, the film is about Beane himself: about his efforts to try something different in order to achieve his goal of winning a World Series.  On another level, Moneyball is a film about a man who loves the game and wants to leave his mark on it, if not on the field itself at least then on how to do more with less.

As portrayed by Pitt, Billy Beane is above all a realist, someone who knows the limits he faces and also knows the system doesn't work.  Beane is aware that he can't outspend the other teams, so he needs to find another way.  When he comes across Brand's numbers-crunching, it appears to be the answer.  Pitt's Beane is a remarkably controlled individual, rarely expressing anger but making his frustrations clear about how his method, of which he has full confidence in, is constantly thwarted by small minds determined to stick with what they know even if the results will be the same.

Pitt also excels in his scenes outside the field, in particular with his daughter.  We see the genuine love he has for her, and thanks to that we have a fully-rounded individual who sees baseball as his job (one he wants to do the very best at) but whose life is his family.  He also brings a sadness to Beane, whenever we see his past as a Major League player.  Beane has been all but bred to play the game, and has been told by the scouts that he has the skills to be among the greats.  However, his career on the field proved otherwise.  In a small but excellent scene, Beane over the phone asks Brand if he would have drafted Beane right out of high school.  After an uncomfortable pause, Brand tells him he would have taken Beane in the ninth round, if at all.  Knowing what he knows about his career and seeing Brand won't sugarcoat the truth to him, we see into both their characters: both are honest, direct, and interested only in winning.

Hoffmann has a small role, but he makes the most of it.  He also maintains great control, but his Howe makes it clear he doesn't see things the way Beane and Brand do, so he does as he thinks right.  Jonah Hill moves away from his schlub-comic persona to be a remarkably quiet schlub, a person who is slightly insecure among all the athletes but who has full confidence in his numbers.  Granted, oftentimes he appears to just be staring, but at least he's not trying to make us laugh, so that's a plus.

Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (both Oscar winners in the adapted screenplay category) adapted Michael Lewis' nonfiction book (with story by Stan Chervin) and did a great job in translating it by focusing less on the actual results of the games and more on the human drama.  You have this team made up of the likes of David Justice (Stephen Bishop) a player once a big star but whose age is seen as a handicap and who is looking for one last shot, and Scott Hatterberg (Chris Pratt) another player dismissed but who sees in the A's a chance to rise to a great one.

Bennett Miller doesn't spend much time on the games themselves, however, when we do see the game (in particular the A's/Royals game) we do get beautiful moments that speak to that 'magic' baseball has (even for those who don't know what shortstop and outfield mean).  As he did with Capote, he doesn't have such things as a distracting score or various story threads.  While he gives certain characters their moments, by keeping the focus on Beane (both professional and personal) Moneyball becomes less a movie about baseball than a movie about a man who is determined to make a success out of what he's been given.

I can't find anything particularly bad with Moneyball save for the fact that as good as the film is, I couldn't get passionate about it.  It might have been due to the fact that while efficient, Moneyball doesn't attempt to be inspirational.   Like the numbers game it emphasizes, the film does its job, does it well, but doesn't stir the emotions.  In short, I don't think Moneyball is a bad film.  I just didn't get inspired by it, didn't get a sense that I should care all that much about Billy Beane or the A's (even if I happen to favor the Dodgers myself).

Actually, that's not entirely true.  I did get inspired in one respect.  Given how much emphasis there was in getting value for money, I began to wonder what would happen if Hollywood started adapting the same facts and figures to their lineup of stars.  In short, what would happen if the studios found out certain stars were overpaid and underperforming, then started hiring actors, writers, directors, who could make a good film but with limited budgets while cutting the same who weren't.  Now THAT'S a film I would cheer for.

DECISION: B-

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