Friday, September 23, 2011

Moneyball: Thoughtful slugger

Moneyball (2011) • View trailer for Moneyball
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for occasional profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.23.11

You just can’t beat the romantic, almost spiritual atmosphere of a good baseball movie.

Other sports-themed dramas — football, basketball, tennis, whatever — simply don’t deliver the emotional oomph of The Natural, Field of Dreams, The Pride of the Yankees and many, many others. Baseball movies — like the sport itself — aren’t merely about the game; they’re more akin to a religious experience.
Forced to wait in the outer office like some no-account hired hand, Oakland
Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) suspects that his efforts to
trade players with the Cleveland Indians will come to nothing ... but, at the
moment, he sees no other options. That view is about to change, as will
Beane's entire vision of how best to create a winning baseball team.

Moneyball belongs in their company: a rather unconventional entry, to be sure, but one suffused with its own type of magic.

Director Bennett Miller’s thoughtful drama, ostensibly a profile of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), actually concerns one man’s quixotic quest to re-write the fundamental principle that had driven baseball for decades: the notion that the best team could — would — be assembled by obtaining the best players money could buy.

And for “best,” insert “most expensive.” After all, a player commanding an eight-figure salary must be worth every penny, right?

Ah, but is a collection of ego-inflated prima donnas actually a team? Therein lies the question.

Scripters Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), working from a story by Stan Chervin — who, in turn, adapted Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game — have quite cleverly written the All the President’s Men of baseball, and made the result equally fascinating. Just as William Goldman spun espionage and intrigue from the grinding research and day-to-day fact-checking of newspaper reporters, Sorkin and Zaillian have made a rich, engrossing brew of economics, statistics and charts.

An impressive feat, to say the least.

Miller has made it even better with a well-cast collection of realistic characters: dreamers, pragmatists, visionaries and stubborn naysayers. Change doesn’t come without pain.

We meet Beane and his Oakland Athletics in the aftermath of the 2001 season, just as their best players are cherry-picked by other franchises with deeper pockets. The A’s are left gutted, with Beane nearly apoplectic over the realization that his team is little more than a candy store for the Yankees and other wealthier rivals. The playing field isn’t level, and he resents it.

A humiliating attempt to horse-trade with the Cleveland Indians draws Beane’s attention to somebody who seems out of place in that office: a quiet, couch-potato nebbish whose opinion inexplicably carries some weight. Beane tracks this individual to his desk — a delightful scene, well staged by Miller — and thus meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).

Brand is a stats freak who candidly expresses his frustration over the fact that — in his view — people are going about the “science” of building a baseball team in entirely the wrong way.

That’s the core irony, of course; it’s not science. Beane knows this from personal experience, having been recruited himself, back in the day, based on a combination of raw talent, expectation and farm-fresh likability. But Beane’s five-year career in the majors was a study in disappointment, the young man never quite living up to his own promise.

We get these details during brief flashbacks — learning, along the way, what drives and contributes to Beane’s psyche — as the core story progresses. Beane’s therefore precisely the person pre-conditioned to think outside the box. He returns to Oakland having made only one purchase: Peter Brand.

Knowing he can neither outbid nor outplay wealthier franchises via traditional methods, Beane embraces Brand’s philosophy of aggregate statistics: pursuing (for example) a weak thrower, in exchange for the same man’s impressive at-bat percentages. Brand’s operating mantra — backed by impressively detailed charts — is that so-called star players are overpaid for their actual skills, which often aren’t terribly well-rounded.

Better, therefore, to assemble a team of less expensive “overlooked misfits” who, collectively, can deliver the same goods. An intriguing theory ... but would it work in actual (batting) practice?

Longtime sports fans — particularly those who play fantasy baseball — will recognize this as Sabermetrics, defined by co-creator Bill James as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” Those same fans also will recognize that Peter Brand never existed; his character is the shorthand personification of an entire squad of economic analysts the real-world Beane hired, in an effort to replace scouting hunches and gut instincts with hard science.

This is a typical screenwriters’ ploy, and a brilliant one: The always engaging dynamic between Pitt and Hill fuels this film. Pitt’s Beane is dedicated, driven and wholly consumed by his desire to out-maneuver the other franchise owners who regard the A’s with pitying glances. Hill’s Brand simply loves the game itself: idolizes it all out of proportion, to quote Woody Allen’s line about New York City.

Brand views Beane as a kindred spirit savvy enough to embrace this radical approach; Beane regards Brand as unlikely salvation. Indeed, by “recruiting” Brand — whose physical characteristics make the young man an overlooked outsider himself — Beane demonstrates precisely the mind-set necessary to embrace this challenge.

Not that such an effort will be applauded by anybody else.

Beane’s chief tormentor is field manager Art Howe, played with smoldering disdain by an almost unrecognized, balding and portly Philip Seymour Hoffman. These physical characteristics are key to Howe’s character, because the man simply refuses to let Beane mess with game line-up and field strategy, traditionally the field manager’s role.

Hoffman is thoroughly credible in this role, as with everything he touches; Howe is utterly intractable ... but we sense, at this man’s core, that he can be persuaded. Somehow. Eventually.

Hill is a hoot, but Brand isn’t mere comedy relief. This young actor has grown considerably since his vulgar sidekick days in the likes of Knocked Up and Superbad, and he makes the most of his craftily conceived character here. Brand is never quite sure when Beane is putting him on, and Hill plays that uncertainty to perfection.

Robin Wright has a superfluous, badly under-written role as Beane’s ex-wife, Sharon; one gets the impression that her best scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. Young Kerris Dorsey, recognized from television’s Brothers and Sisters, does far better as Billy and Sharon’s daughter, Casey. The girl has a truly lovely scene with her father, while they search a music store for a guitar; the devoted expression on Pitt’s face is transcendent.

This scene also allows a poignant use of pop star Lenka’s hit, “The Show.”

Underdog baseball movies generally are comedies — as with, say, Major League — and the players therefore are star turns by a familiar ensemble cast; as a result, they’re far from real. Not so the actors assembled here: a collection of mostly unknowns, many of them former ball players, who therefore look and sound authentic ... and vulnerable.

Beane’s apparently crazed scheme is a work in progress, and he’ll therefore cut and trade mercilessly, if necessary. We feel the resulting pain.

Chris Pratt stands out as injured catcher-turned-first baseman Scott Hatteberg: a guy grateful for this second chance, who nonetheless fears that his own deficiencies will get in the way. Stephen Bishop delivers a similarly nuanced performance as fading All-Star left fielder David Justice: a player “aging out” in his mid-30s.

Casey Bond is simply a hoot as idiosyncratic relief pitcher Chad Bradford, whose throws must be seen to be believed.

That’s the most fascinating element of this film. Despite the story’s serious nature, and the atmosphere of desperation that hovers over this gamble, Miller’s tone can be unexpectedly funny. Credit Zaillian and Sorkin for their marvelous script; Sorkin, in particular, previously wrestled taut drama and frequent humor from the equally unlikely realm of computer nerds in The Social Network. A composite character like Peter Brand is right up Sorkin’s alley.

Mostly, though, Miller gets the tone right: the enchanting, exhilarating, indefinable bliss of baseball. Pitt conveys this as well, with every reverential glance at a ball park. (It should be noted that his beatific persona here goes down much more palatably than his similarly symbolism-laced work in “The Tree of Life.”)

And, to the credit of all, the story is told more or less properly. Scripting shortcuts such as Peter Brand aside, Miller, Zaillian and Sorkin don’t re-write the essential history; longtime fans also know what eventually happened to the 2002 Athletics. It’s a helluva story, and I’ve no doubt baseball buffs will take this film to heart.

After all — Beane’s obsession notwithstanding — it isn’t whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Right?

1 comment:

  1. Occasionally seems to jump around, but all in all an interesting view of the strategy of a small market club making the most of its assets. It also helps that they had Zito, Mulder, and Hudson.