Saturday, October 1, 2011

TBG Sees: Moneyball

OK, 7:40 PM showing of Moneyball: entertain me & I'll promise not to audibly pick apart every inaccuracy for everyone in the theater. Deal? -- from my Twitter feed, September 24.

Through the eyes of the team's fans, the cinematic adaptation of Michael Lewis' polarizing 2003 bestseller could inadvertently serve as a metaphor for the current Oakland Athletics ballclub. That is to say I enjoyed the film, but I don't know if I could recommend it to a larger audience.

The 2011 Athletics were one of the most disappointing and depressing teams I've followed in my 30 years as an A's fan. But, they have a rookie second baseman named
Jemile Weeks who was absolutely electrifying for long stretches after he was called up in June. On a squad without much crossover appeal or charisma, Weeks' flashiness out of the leadoff spot -- at the plate and on the basepaths -- was impossible to miss and easy to embrace.

In Moneyball, Brad Pitt is Jemile Weeks.

Well, actually, Pitt plays Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. (But, stick around...I'll make the Weeks comparison work.) Moneyball opens with excruciating highlights from the fifth and final game of the 2001 American League Division Series. After winning the first two games against the mighty Yankees in New York, the A's would lose the next two at home in Oakland before dropping the clincher back in the Bronx. Faced with the expected loss of several free agents, Beane assumes the herculean task of replacing now-expensive offensive productivity at a fraction of its price on the open market.

I'm incredibly torn on Brad Pitt's performance. The film leans heavily on his incandescent charm -- particularly during the glacially-paced first 30 minutes -- and Pitt deftly softens Beane's more egocentric moments to the point where you just know he's right and everyone else is wrong, wrong, wrong. During the much-discussed "scout scene", Pitt's Billy Beane condescendingly shoves his new-school methods down the collective throats of his scouting staff -- who are practically depicted as cardboard cutouts from the Mesozoic Era. It's ham-fisted in its subtlety, but Pitt has perfected the concept of patter and sharpens the scene's bluntness to a slightly finer point.

There are other moments in Moneyball when Brad Pitt seems to be playing...Brad Pitt. During a pair of otherwise entertaining scenes, Beane is frantically working the phones -- several lines at a time -- in hopes of closing several trades. Here -- as the fast-talking, junk-food fueled snake-oil salesman -- a straight line could be drawn from Moneyball to Ocean's 11 to every late-night talk show appearance Pitt has ever made.

The supporting cast, thankfully, is much more consistent in their performances. Jonah Hill is fantastic as Beane's right-hand man Peter Brand. He's an insecure numbers-cruncher who grows into his skin before our eyes. In one of the film's best scenes, Brand is tasked with informing hotshot prospect Carlos Peña that he's been traded from Oakland to Detroit. It's an odd segment played as one long, awkward pause -- curiously, there are a LOT of those in this movie -- but, it's only briefly uncomfortable as Hill controls the moment.

In smaller roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman convincingly turns affable then-A's manager Art Howe into a seething, simmering pot of distrust and insecurity as he defies Beane -- and his dorky statistics -- at every turn. Meanwhile, Chris Pratt is solid as Scott Hatteberg -- the team's new first baseman who was one of the faces of the Moneyball era. (Although, his character's challenges and concerns with learning a new position are never really paid off in the film.)

Ultimately, all of the actors gamely lift Moneyball onto their shoulders, but fall short of bringing it all together.

The first quarter of the film remains stuck in first gear and just when it starts to build some momentum, the script slows it down again. There are a handful of flashbacks to Beane's own failed Major League Baseball career that actually work as a foreshadowing element, but they're still a bit clunky in execution. A scene where Beane picks up his 12-year-old daughter at the home of his ex-wife is downright mean in its depiction of his ex's new husband -- played as an emotionally and physically feeble spirit who knows nothing about sports, as if this were an overt character flaw.

Moneyball does, of course, build towards its obligatory climactic sports moment. Kind of. After a lot of mediocrity, the Oakland A's start winning...all the time. Real footage from the team's supersized 2002 winning streak is interspersed towards the end of the final act until we're a regular season game in September. The A's take an 11-0 lead and are well on their way to winning their 20th straight until it all falls apart. It actually works as drama, though, thanks in part to a fleeting, dialogue-free moment from Hoffman who nails the epiphany scene that could've easily been played as paint-by-numbers. Instead, it's as close as we get to a confluence between the film's true protagonists: old-school instincts and new-school statistics.

But, since this is a baseball movie and Brad Pitt isn't playing a baseball player, the final sequence creaks to the finish line. Pitt furrows his brow and runs his hands through his hair in exasperation as Beane watches the climax unfold from the front row. In 2002, I watched this game from my living room. It was one of my favorite experiences as a sports fan. It almost certainly meant much less to you, though, which is why the final, final scenes are of a conflicted Beane as he ponders a more lucrative job offer.

Moneyball doesn't entirely succeed as a "something for everybody" film, but it comes closer than many of the more critical reviews would have you believe. Like the 2011 Oakland Athletics fed off of the frenetic, high-wattage energy of Jemile Weeks, Pitt's leadoff leading man performance here is strong enough to fuel Moneyball even during its slower moments. Again, I enjoyed the film as a whole and would absolutely see it a second time, but the subject matter spoke to me in a way that it might not to you.

Which is why you probably haven't heard of Jemile Weeks. Yet.


Tom said...

"an emotionally and physically feeble spirit who knows nothing about sports, as if this were an overt character flaw."

Let's be honest -- do YOU fully trust "I Don't Watch Sports" guy?

MarcoFromHouston said...

well played, sir.

I was excited to see this film, but expected something better. Def not a classic baseball movie, and not even as good as some of the newer baseball movies (The Rookie, For Love of The Game).

I prob won't buy the DVD for my collection, but I would catch it on cable or Netflix.

Jag said...

Love this review! Thanks Aaron!

that mexican guy said...

I liked it. And this is coming from a Dodgers fan who only knows the A's through Cam (and the Andre Ethier trade...and the Kirk Gibson thing).

Did you take Mrs. Bootleg to see it last night? Did she like it? I have to think if she can sit through entire Spring Training games with you and Jalen, Moneyball would've been a breeze.

(And I'm with Tom. Never trust a man who doesn't like sports. Particularly those who wear it as a badge of honor. They might be part of a sleeper cell.)

Aaron C. said...

@Mex: I did take the wife. She liked it, more or less, but thought it petered out towards the end. (Also, your "sleeper cell" theory intrigues me. Someone should look into this.)


And a quick THANK YOU to those who just discovered this lightly-read blog through my Moneyball review! Really appreciated the kind words I received over the weekend!