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Moneyball: No More Than A Solid Double

Moneyball is an unfortunate example of a fascinating story losing some of its luster when translated into movie form. There are several scenes which have an energy and intelligence not found in other sports films, which manage to raise your expectations, and there are others that follow cliche to the T, which temper the expectations once more. Bennett Miller flashes the film’s potential but then squanders it, resulting in a film that is immensely palatable and will satisfy all but those who see how much better the film could have been.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is a major league baseball general manager with a massive dilemma. His team just lost to the Yankees in the playoffs, largely because the Yankees have a monstrously bigger budget to pay talent than the A’s do. To make matters worse, the three main all-stars from the A’s have all left to teams that can pay them salaries the A’s can’t afford. Beane wants to figure out how a team with no money can compete with a team with hundreds of millions of dollars. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young man with his first job in baseball, pitches– no pun intended– an idea to Beane: a form of player analysis that assigns value based on statistics. “You shouldn’t be buying players, you should be buying wins, and to buy wins, you have to buy runs.” They examine on-base percentage to determine who should be signed by their team, which flies directly in the face of conventional knowledge, angering the scouts, their coach (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and the baseball community at large.

By casting someone like Brad Pitt in your film, you give a movie like this a chance to succeed. Beane has to be likable, charming, someone who can suggest both being popular and being an outsider– in essence, a film for a big movie star. Pitt is guilty of smirking his way through films like this, but here his smirk is put to good use, and it’s one of his best leading man performances to date: not particularly deep, just a strong movie star character depiction. Jonah Hill succeeds in the sense that he reins in his normal energy, but with one or two notable exceptions, you definitely feel the effort of his restraint. Side characters played by Chris Pratt and Stephen Bishop are memorable, but Philip Seymour Hoffman is wasted like no performance by an Academy Award winning actor in recent memory. Howe is a glum cypher whose only purpose in the film is to be yet another naysayer of Beane’s tactics, so outside of looking sad and fat, Hoffman is given zero character to play here, which considering the talent is a big disappointment.

The other disappointment is the contrast between the strikingly original and the unfortunately cliched. I love a good cliched sports movie as much as the next, but Miller can’t precisely balance the backroom debates with the actual baseball action. The debates with Pitt, Hill, and the scouts are by far and away the most interesting parts of the film: the dialogue crackles, the actors are at their best, and it’s a presentation of the game that we haven’t seen captured on film before. They manage to even make reviewing game footage in the film room into exciting, impactful scenes. However, they’re balanced between drama with the players on and off the field, all of whom’s storylines we’ve seen before (Pratt’s has a touch of resonance, but his presence is established mostly by the amount of time spent talking about him rather than actual footage of Pratt acting, which voids the emotional impact to a degree). The combination of the two has a negative impact on these better scenes– I remember a couple of scenes with Pitt fighting the scouts, and a terrific scene or two of trade negotiation– forcing the film to lose the original twist it could have clung to in favor of attempting something more recognizable.

And perhaps there’s something to this strategy Miller has employed. The Blind Side took a movie that could have tackled some very real and controversial subject matter, but instead let the majority of the originality fall by the wayside in favor of a more cliched story led by a Movie Star– this resulted in The Blind Side being a massive hit. Maybe the audience for a movie about general managers who are trading players willy nilly and playing with millions of dollars is more limited than one who watched a dreamy Brad Pitt act like an underdog with Jonah Hill as his sidekick. Don’t be fooled by the name Aaron Sorkin on the script– very few scenes have the snappy dialogue of The Social Network or A Few Good Men, so his fingerprints shouldn’t be reason enough to see the film. The film is worth seeing for the story, which really does contain the potential a very intriguing behind-the-scenes-of-baseball film. Players’ responses to trades, the wheeling and dealing of general managers– there’s some interesting stuff in between the cliches. But rooting for Moneyball to be more than just good is like pulling for an underdog in the playoffs: don’t get too hopeful, otherwise by the end you’ll just be disappointed.

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~ by russellhainline on September 22, 2011.

One Response to “Moneyball: No More Than A Solid Double”

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