Friday, September 30, 2011


Spoiler alert-o-meter: No worries!

Moneyball is a movie directed by Bennett Miller based on the 2004 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. It’s the end of the season in 2001, and the A’s had a decent run but didn’t make it to the playoffs. Again. Not only that, the team loses three of its best players to other teams. You see, Billy’s main problem is that his team only has about 38 million to spend in a season. Compare that with teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox who can spend 135-140 million a season. All the best, big name players go to those teams because they can afford to pay top dollar. Billy needs to change things up, to rethink the way his team acquires players.

On paper Moneyball sounds like a yawn, and in the theaters it has the potential to live up to that promise, yet somehow the movie mostly works due to a emotionally resonant script (by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian) and a filmmaking style that doesn’t overwhelm the story. The great cast embodies the key players both on the field and in the clubhouse and help breath life into what is essentially a movie about statistics.

Brad Pitt plays Billy. When he was younger, Billy was courted by the majors right out of high school because he was a talented player with amazing potential. Cut to twenty-five years later, and now he’s the guy that goes to the prospective player’s houses to meet and sign them.

Billy’s in great shape, although he scarfs junk food and his job would give anybody anxiety attacks. He’s an athlete who no longer plays the game. He hates losing even more than he loves winning. And he’s tired of his team losing. Pitt’s still vital physique belies his characters’ sense of yearning, loss, and need for redemption. Billy’s sad, tired eyes tell the story of his also-ran life in pro sports. He’s divorced (his wife is played by Robin Wright), and when it’s his turn with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), she can’t help but worry about him.

Billy meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, going effectively understated here), a business major just out of Yale who is a whiz with statistics. Peter tells Billy of his belief in the ideas set forth by analyst Bill James decades earlier but never embraced, including how winning in baseball is a percentage game and that teams are throwing big money at all the wrong players. Peter’s idea is to acquire players based on how often they get on base. Because players that get on base win games. This makes so much sense to Billy that he hires Peter and embraces this new single-minded philosophy when he starts recruiting players for the next season.

The arc of this story concerns Billy recruiting new players, and seeing how this ragtag team plays out their 2002 season. It’s fun watching Billy break the news to his seasoned scouts that they will not be hiring pitchers with the fastest arm and young hitters with a lot of potential (not unlike Billy when he was younger). Their new season starts with a losing whimper, with a team that includes a pitcher who throws sidearm, a former catcher with a bum elbow on first base, aging star hitter David Justice, and various other motley players all cheap enough for the A’s budget.

When it’s clear to everyone that Billy’s new philosophy isn’t working out, he and the team, not to mention coach Art Howe (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a seasoned vet whose contract may or may not get picked up), become the brunt of announcer’s jokes and fan’s fury (oh those fans). When the team finally hits on a winning streak, everyone’s amazed.

Moneyball is a heartfelt look at not just the game of baseball, but how the players are pawns in a game where moves are made far above their heads and how they can be traded with a well-timed phone call and a look at the money in the bank. It avoids being a big league Bad News Bears, or a Major League played mostly straight.

I’m fascinated by movies that showcase jobs I don’t know about. I don’t follow baseball, but even if I did, Moneyball shows the inside scoop on how the gears grind behind major league teams and pro sports in America. The movie runs about 10-15 minutes long, as if director Miller didn’t want to disturb his characters, wanting their emotions (mostly Pitt’s Beane) to play out in almost real time. The ending is obvious and redundant, but it doesn’t detract from what came before. Days after viewing, the movie has stuck with me.

Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, September 25th, pm matinee. Viewed with Liz. Snack: licorice from the Chocolate Sparrow!

Coming Attractions

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Completely superfluous version of the original. Looks about the same: story, look, characters, even accents. Why bother? I'm surprised such a visionary director as David Fincher took this on. Plus, the original wasn't that hot either. I chock it up to a lame, average story.

Immortals. Looks like a bunch of other movies where warriors during a distant past (or future?) era stormed the castle. Bonus: Mickey Rourke!

J. Edgar. Clint Eastwood is still churning out movies. This one stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular character. His aging makeup looks like a triumph, if incredibly creepy and disconcerting.

Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. A jazzed up version of the John le Carré novel. All star cast includes Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Tom Hardy.


Cynthia Sherrick said...

I just may make it to the theater for this one. :)

Question: When you list the films in the Coming Attractions section, are these trailers you saw during the above movie review or just movies you have read about?
Just curious... :)

Lis's Mom said...

This is such a thoughtful, touching, honest review.

It is always interesting when someone thinks of a solution to an almost insolvable problem. That gets my attention and respect.

Dell Smith said...

Cindy, good question! Yes, these are always the trailers before the movie. I think you'd like this one.

LM: Thanks! America loves problem solvers, especially underdogs who buck the system. After they're successful, of course.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I saw Moneyball a couple of days ago and I have to say your review was spot on. :)I really liked it.

They showed about 15 previews and hardly a one sticks with me. They were all too loud and too long. I don't get why the film producers and trailer makers don't get that less is more.

Thanks UN.