Mark Reviews Movies



3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Bennett Miller

Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Nick Porrazzo, Kerris Dorsey, Robin Wright, Brent Jennings

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language)

Running Time: 2:13

Release Date: 9/23/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 22, 2011

"It's hard not to romanticize baseball," says Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), twice, late into Moneyball. He really doesn't want to, either, since the game has brought him nothing but heartache since he was 17. Whether he dreamed of playing professional baseball in his youth doesn't matter; he got that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that so many before and after him have struggled to receive. He was ready to go to Stanford on a full scholarship when a scout approached him and his family with the news that he is the kind of player any team would love to have. College or baseball was the choice presented to him, and when he now finds himself as the general manager of a team that does well but not well enough, there's nothing but regret in his voice when he considers the very real possibility that he might be out of a job if he can't pull his team together.

There's nothing romantic about the behind-the-scenes look at baseball in Moneyball. It's a story of negotiations, statistics, professional clashes, and inner turmoil, based on the book by Michael Lewis, adapted with a no-nonsense directness by screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. No one likes a losing team. It seems insiders dislike a mediocre one even more, and they hate when someone tries to fix a flawed system that they perceive as perfection, crafted over a century of experience.

The film uses the foundation of the underdog story, with its team of perceived miscreants and has-beens looking for their shot at glory. What's fascinating about Zaillian and Sorkin's script is the way they take that template and juxtapose it with a misunderstood and widely derided idea (at the time), brought to light by someone whose cynicism with the establishment has been building for most of his life. It was the concept that baseball is only played by stars—and his inability to live up to crushing expectations—that brought him to where he is now. For Beane, to challenge the thought process that focuses on salaries and budgets is both an act of defiance against the naysayers and a last-ditch effort at making something out of what he believes to be a wasted life.

The story opens in 2001, as the Oakland Athletics close out their season with a playoff loss to the New York Yankees. The screen is filled with the two teams' budgets at the time: The Yankees are working with over $114 million, while the A's strain with under $40 million. Adding insult to injury, the A's top three players are becoming free agents to take advantage of better salary opportunities elsewhere. "There are the rich teams, then there are the poor teams, then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us," Beane reminds his scouts, who think the problem is easily solved by recruiting other well-known names in the game. Even if direct replacements were available, they'd never be able to afford them.

When Beane travels to Cleveland to discuss a possible trade, he encounters Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent graduate of Yale with a degree in economics who insists that the team not give away the player whom Beane wants. Beane hunts him down—a random, nameless face in crowd of cubicles—and wonders what happened back there. These scenes are neat and quick studies of business politics and power dynamics.

Traditional scouting techniques, Brand argues once the two have danced around the question and are alone in a parking garage, are flawed due to human prejudice, which leads to unforeseen errors. The ideal player may not be the one who has the most home runs, for example, but the one who gets to first base with regularity. Empirical data is rarely wrong. With his back against the wall and seeing promise in the kid's theory, Beane hires Brand as his assistant general manager once he returns to California.

So they go about crunching the numbers, with Brand coming up with a computer code that will reduce players' complex statistics down to a single number. Director Bennett Miller similarly reduces the complexity of the concept in a simple, understandable way, leaving the breakdown to a montage, and instead observes how once-undesirable athletes (due to age, a unique way of pitching, and a propensity for partying—the reporters only see these things when they interview the new roster) get another chance and tensions arise within the administrative side of the franchise. The team's manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) refuses to play the team as Beane and Brand want, and an old hand at the customary way of scouting players accuses Beane of working out his own problems and jeopardizing the team in the process.

He is attempting to resolve some long-standing issues, and throughout the main story, Miller flashes back to Beane's career in the majors—year after year, team after team, and disappointment after disappointment. At some point he got married and had a daughter; now he is divorced (His ex is played by Robin Wright) and only rarely sees his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). He takes a hands-off approach once the game starts (superstition that he will jinx games by his presence in the stadium) and avoids personal connections with the players (in case he has to trade or drop them). Outbursts become commonplace as the team becomes complacent in its losing ways, the press asserts that it's time for a new general manager, and everyone thinks this whole statistics game is a joke. Pitt's performance is a slow burn that—because of Beane's unending desire for more—is always ready but never quite able to ignite.

Then something truly wonderful happens, and all the doubts and skepticism are thrown out the window. Moneyball, which has convinced us that baseball has been corrupted beyond repair by money and star power, gives us a Big Game, and the stakes are higher than the outcome of the game itself. The buildup has been key to the sequence's success, and the screenplay is unafraid to admit that a historic milestone can be forgotten almost as quickly as it is achieved. The denouement is a bittersweet combination of undeniable accomplishment and further dissatisfaction. For some, there's always a bigger Big Game down the road.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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