Saturday, February 25, 2012

Moneyball (Rudin/De Luca/Columbia, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Moneyball, one of the few recent movies both Charles and I had expressed an interest in (he’d seen the Redbox machine at Albertson’s and said the only films in it he really wanted to see were The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1, which we’d already seen in a theatre, and Moneyball) and one I’d ordered from Columbia House in the same batch as Midnight in Paris. Moneyball was a baseball movie based on a book by business reporter (and former Wall Street trader) Michael Lewis (whose more recent book The Big Short, about a group of financial gamesmen who worked out a way to make a killing off the impending collapse of the U.S. home-mortgage market in the late 2000’s, would itself make an interesting movie) called Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The basic story is about three people who revolutionized the game of major league baseball, especially in terms of how teams selected players. One isn’t shown in the movie, except in an insert shot of a magazine featuring him; he’s Bill James, founder of a group called the Society for American Baseball Research, whose initials — SABR — gave his discipline the name “Sabermetrics.” The basic principle is that instead of scouting players the old-fashioned way — by watching their games in high school, college or minor-league competition and intuiting from their slugging, throwing or pitching how they’d fare in the majors — the new-school scouts would systematize it all, collecting statistics (baseball has always been the most statistically oriented of the major team sports) and using personal computers to crunch them. The other major innovation in Sabermetrics was the idea that instead of looking for power hitters who could drive in home runs, teams should be looking for people who know how to get on base, since the obvious prerequisite for scoring in baseball is to get on base in the first place.

The central character is Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the boyishly handsome (well, Brad Pitt’s playing him so he’s going to be boyishly handsome!) general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who came to that position after he turned down a college scholarship to Stanford to sign a big contract with the New York Mets — and bombed as a major-leaguer for reasons that remain pretty uncertain in the movie (we see a few shots of him in various team uniforms — this man moved around as much as the peripatetic NFL washout Ryan Leaf — staring at rival pitchers, looking scared shitless, as pitches blow by him and he strikes out). He builds a team that actually makes it to the final game (the so-called “elimination game”) of the division playoffs to the New York Yankees in 2001, only the Yankees and two other better-heeled teams pick off his three biggest stars. Faced with the need to replace them, with an owner lacking George Steinbrenner’s deep pockets and disinclined to spend money he doesn’t have, he calls a meeting of his scouts and is disgusted by what he hears — we don’t know this at the beginning of the movie but eventually we realize that the reason he’s so pissed off is that the scouts are making the same mistakes in evaluating players that the Mets’ scouts had made about him lo those many years ago — which reaches its most absurd point when one of the scouts recommends against signing a particular player because “his girlfriend is ugly.” Just when we’re asking ourselves what the hell that has to do with anything, the scout adds, “That shows lack of confidence.” Desperate to field a winning team without the money to buy one on the open market, Beane seizes on sabermetrics in general and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) in particular, a Yale economics major whom Beane finds working in the front office of the Cleveland Indians and appoints his assistant.

The two of them end up putting together a team which Brand likens to the Island of Misfit Toys in the old TV Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and they face resistance not only from the scouts but also from the A’s manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman — the man who was so convincingly nellie as Truman Capote turns out to be versatile enough to portray an old baseball salt equally credibly — through much of the movie I actually thought Hoffman was playing Peter Brand!), who thinks first baseman Carlos Peña (Adrian Bellani) is the team’s only real star and refuses Beane’s demand that he play former catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) at first instead. Though Moneyball has its flaws — screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin keep trying to bend this story into the usual movie tropes and seize on every chance the facts offered them to do so (like the A’s poor performance in the first half of the season and the 20-game winning streak, the longest in American League history, they achieve in the second half), but the realities kept intruding (despite the success of the sabermetrically conceived team — so much so that eventually all other major-league teams started using the same techniques, so the competitive advantage disappeared — the story ends in the same place it began, with the A’s being knocked out of the playoffs in the divisional elimination game, Beane laments that no matter how well you do in the lead-up to it, all anybody remembers is that you lost the final game of the season, and there’s a where-are-they-now credit that indicates that Beane is still waiting to win his season’s final game) — it’s a quite compelling movie, and as long as you know the basics of baseball you can enjoy it without having to be a raving fan.

Where Moneyball falls short is that, though it’s attempting to use baseball as a metaphor, it’s really too much (pardon the pun) insider baseball to work as a symbol of anything else — John Sayles’ Eight Men Out, which if forced I’d say was my favorite baseball movie of all time, managed (thanks to Sayles’ radical sensibilities) to be a movie about capitalism disguised as a movie about baseball; and as much as I thought it was overrated, at least Field of Dreams was trying to be more than just another movie about baseball, whereas Moneyball is just an unusually good baseball movie (getting a lot of its drama from one of the quirkiest facts about the game: that, once you are on offense, there is theoretically no limit to the number of points you can score — unlike football, soccer or basketball, in which once you score you’re obliged to give the other team their chance at the ball). I enjoyed it and think Brad Pitt deserved his Academy Award nomination — for once he actually shows some emotion instead of just letting his blue eyes and boyishly handsome face do his acting for him — and liked Bennett Miller’s effective direction (his only previous directing credits are Capote and a documentary called The Cruise, a film about — of all people — a Gray Line tour guide in New York City), but I could see why Columbia Pictures studio head Amy Pascal nixed the original version of the film (which Steven Soderbergh was to have directed) because she thought the budget was too high to make money when the film wouldn’t play in countries where baseball is either unknown or not popular, and I can also see why the Los Angeles Times “Overrated/Underrated” column said that Moneyball’s appeal to baseball non-fans had been overrated. Still, in these times it’s nice to see a movie in which nobody has superpowers and the story is based on something other than a comic book or young-adult novel!