The Good: Most of the acting, Much of the mood is surprisingly engaging
The Bad: Exceptionally light on character, Moments when Brad Pitt slips out of character, Mood is oppressive.
The Basics: Moneyball tells a surprisingly engaging baseball story without delving enough into the protagonist to make one truly care about the outcome.
One of the interesting things about going to a number of screenings is that frequently, I'll see a movie that is still listed as "Not Rated" when I receive my tickets, but is rated by the time I see it. So, tonight when I saw Moneyball, I decided to guess what it would be rated. The moment the second "fuck" was used, I jotted it off as an unfortunate "R" and kept watching. I was surprised, then, after the closing credits when the blue banner came up saying it had been rated "PG-13." Kudos either to the MPAA for relenting on their ridiculous standards or director Bennett Miller for getting it past them! The only other real surprise of the night for me was that I actually knew something baseball-related. Given how this is all baseball history, I need no spoiler alert, but for those who need such things, there it is: I was excited when very late in the film Billy Bean traveled to Boston and I knew that his principles were applied there to lead to victory. This I know not from having any enjoyment of baseball, but rather from my love of Lost (reviewed here!).
If it seems like my review is getting off to a forced start, that's not an illusion. I'm not sure what to say about Moneyball. I know I was bored by it. I know that I was shocked when the end credits began and Aaron Sorkin's name came up as a cowriter of the film. I was less shocked that Sorkin was involved given the general intelligence of the dialogue, but I was surprised because Sorkin's best works have vibrant characters I come to care about, like The Social Network (reviewed here!). I know there were moments that I cared more than I expected to, but that ultimately, the movie left me feeling nothing whatsoever and that's pretty much the death knell of any movie.
Moneyball is a sports movie and for those of us not into sports, even Sorkin cannot save it. For those into baseball, I suppose the frequent name dropping and the come from behind story will be a triumph that energizes the base. But for me, it was slow-moving, with clever moments buried beneath long stretches of events I did not care about leading to a pretty obvious ultimate resolution.
In October, 2001, the Oakland A's get to the play-offs and are knocked out by the Yankees, whose budget was almost three times that of the A's. Billy Beane, the general manager of the A's, tries to get more funding for the team, but is told that will not be happening, despite the A's needing to restock their team as their three best players depart. While at a meeting with the staff of the Cleveland Indians, Beane encounters Peter Brand, a Yale graduate who is working his first job for Cleveland in player analysis. Peter's theory on baseball is based on statistical models and his theory - which immediately captivates Beane - is to recruit based on hard numbers of runs that the team needs to get over the course of the season.
Billy hired Peter and they begin to put the theory to the test, recruiting inexpensively a team of apparent misfits: older players, players who do not physically match the "ideal" and the like. When the head coach, Art Howe, resists the team that Beane has assembled, the first several games of the season go disastrously. In an effort to make it work, Beane fires the players Howe relies upon, forcing him to play the players Beane wants in the positions he wants them in, leading to the longest winning streak in the American League.
Smattered throughout the film are snippets of Beane's career as a baseball player. This is the opportunity for Moneyball to make a real compelling character study, but it falls flat. Beane is portrayed as a wunderkind at baseball who turns down a full scholarship at Stanford for a baseball career that he chokes at. It is only in the final act that his superstitious nature is revealed and by that point, I had stopped caring about the character. That is not entirely true. From the opening frames of the film when Beane is listening to a game, his wedding ring is evident. His estranged or ex-wife is still wearing her ring (noticeably her boyfriend is not wearing a ring), so why these two people are separated or divorced but still have their rings fascinated me . . . and went completely by without being explored.
There are moments when the film is smart, though. In the crude conversations among the scouts, the evaluation of one player's self confidence is characterized as low by the idea that the woman he is with is a six at best. And Moneyball fortunately does not make explicit that Beane is not looking for a sycophant. Instead, he makes Peter tell him that he would not have been a first round draft pick in his models (ninth round and paid very little) and only then does he hire him. That's clever and says what it needs to without saying "That's what I needed to hear."
So, the movie comes down to acting. Unsurprising as Oscar Pandering Season begins is that the acting is phenomenal. Philip Seymour Hoffman is virtually unrecognizable as Art Howe and his supporting role is utterly understated. Shining far brighter is the dramatic presence of Jonah Hill. Sure, Hill seems to have leapt into Seth Rogan's niche of being in everything and being a comedic genius, but he also seems to be jumping over into drama quicker than Rogan did. And in Moneyball he plays Peter as serious, efficient and calculating, exactly what one would expect of a Yale economist.
Then there is Brad Pitt. Pitt is mostly-dour as Billy Beane and it works. For the bulk of the film, Pitt is engaged in a character struggle to overcome the long odds and prove that the faith people had in Beane was not misplaced. And Pitt embodies that by seldom smiling and speaking quietly and with force and conviction. But arguably the most extreme role Pitt ever had that truly showcased his talents and range was as Jeffrey Goines in 12 Monkeys. That's the one I always watch out for and, sad to say, there were two moments where Pitt bugs out his eyes as Beans and hints at the mad genius qualities that made Goines so memorable. So, while most of the role Pitt makes work, he does not stay exclusively in character to truly allow us to lose ourselves in his performance.
Which leaves us with a pretty unremarkable film that plays as a struggle of two men against an institution that does not completely understand the science of itself. The victories are hard-fought and often Pyrrhic and the real shame of the film is that Billy Beane seems to take the credit for what Peter Brand actually postulates and executes. Beane is the face of Brand's idea and the result is a film that left me with a "ho-hum" feeling. For a movie with two surprises within and two without (Sorkin cowriting and the fact that there is a soundtrack available when it is noticeably lacking from the vast majority of the film) I suppose that is to be expected, but it does not make it welcome.
For other works with Jonah Hill please visit my reviews of:
How To Train Your Dragon
The Invention Of Lying
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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