Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Home Run

I don't know how long my father has been a fan of the great sport of baseball, but I do know that it has been a long, LONG time. Particularly interested in the numbers game baseball has become in recent years, he early on bought the annually-released books by statistical pioneer Bill James, the Baseball Abstract. James would tackle the subject of baseball in a way unlike any who had come before or who have since, but fans like my father would snatch up all this unconventional wisdom that would allow them to look at something they loved in a brand new light. James' invention, a statistical analysis of baseball that he called sabermetrics, could analyze a player's skill and could even help plot trends in their baseball careers. Today he is considered one of the most influential people in the world, but only a decade ago he was all but ignored by those who ran the sport, because he often went against their more traditional (and ancient) ways of thinking. Eventually his ideas reached the ears of a man with an open mind, Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane. In the 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, author Michael Lewis talked about how Beane used sabermetrics to turn his underfunded baseball team into a juggernaut by focusing attention on players that were dismissed by advocates of traditional scouting due to intangibles or downright incorrect preconceptions. The excellence of the book, not to mention the legacy that James and Beane have introduced to the sport, is the main reason I had been looking forward to the film adaptation of Moneyball. While I may be on the fence at times with Brad Pitt, I can't deny how far he has come in recent years after being little more than a pretty face during much of his early Hollywood career.

Two of the more unexpected faces to see in a Baseball movie
After his 2001 Oakland Athletics suffer heartbreaking loss against the New York Yankees during the first round of the playoffs (winning the first two games before falling in three straight), Billy Beane (Pitt) has an uphill struggle in front of him. Due to the financial constraints of being a small-market baseball team, Oakland is losing its three best players, and a low budget means there is no way they can afford appropriate replacements. Despite this imbalanced system which rewards rich teams while treating poor ones like minor league affiliates, Beane is frustrated that his scouting department refuses to look at the situation differently from their more affluent competition. This is especially personal for him because it was sweet-talking scouts that had convinced Beane that he was a top-notch talent when he chose his own baseball career over going to college twenty years prior. Still not fully trusting scouts, Beane turns to student of sabermetrics Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), to help build a team from players that most won't touch for various reasons. Though the team has some early struggles, Beane and Brand slowly see this team defy the odds and become a championship-caliber ball club, culminating in the longest winning streak in the history of professional baseball.

Rating his performance in The Tree of Life
The superb casting is what gives Moneyball so much of its flavor. While Pitt and Hill are not stretched very far in what they are given to do on screen, it is their character's friendship and professionalism together that really elevate this film over the bargain basement buddy formula it could have become. Of the two, Hill is somewhat more outside his comfort zone as a young comedy actor; however there are plenty of quips, jibes and smirks delivered deftly, and in that regard Hill might appear to most as performing far superior in comparing this to his earlier efforts. He IS better, no doubt, but don't get your hopes thinking this is going to turn Hill into a perennial awards contender. He and the understated Pitt work well together, and for now that's all we need. The two do have some strong support, most notably Philip Seymour Hoffman as Athletics Manager Art Howe, perpetually grumpy at managing under a one-year contract (which as he points out means that the people in charge have no confidence in him). It's not a big part but Hoffman is perfectly cast and of course does a great job when put on the spot. Several of the baseball players also stand out, especially Stephen Bishop as declining veteran outfielder David Justice and Parks and Recreations star Chris Pratt as converted first baseman (he was originally a catcher before a career-derailing injury) Scott Hatteberg, both of whom proved important to Oakland's playoff run. Less impressive are the actors playing parts in Beane's home life, especially the perennially-underutilized Robin Wright as his unremarkable ex-wife and Kerris Dorsey as his supportive but "why is she there?" daughter. Because the film focuses more on the balance between Beane's baseball and home lives, it doesn't move far to either extreme, meaning any lasting impression those characters might have added were reduced to minimal at best.

Now, don't all stand up at once
Aaron Sorkin was brought in to write Moneyball's script, and while his tendency to ramble on for minutes at a time explaining specifics might have gotten a little old in last year's The Social Network (best screenplay my ASS), here it actually works in the film's favor. After all, what baseball junkie have you met who DOESN'T ramble for seemingly ever about minor details? As my father and I and countless others would agree, endless minutiae is what makes baseball such a fascinating topic in the first place. Sorkin and director Bennett Miller capture this by default in tackling the story introduced by Lewis, but focus on the major league club exclusively, where the book also dedicated part of the tale to the A's minor league efforts. Bennett, whose last directorial effort was the overrated but still classic Capote, injects much needed humor into the tale, which helps expand Moneyball's interest to a wider audience than it would normally appeal.

A baseball movie that focuses on the old guys
Of course, this popularization of the film doesn't let a little thing like factual information get in the way. While the basic idea behind sabermetrics and how it helped the 2002 Oakland A's is fairly intact, some nagging inconsistencies do pop up. While Scott Hatteberg did indeed struggle defensively upon moving to first base, his main competition for the role, Carlos Pena, was not the "All-Star" the film would have you believe. Pena spent more of the season at Triple A Sacramento than he did in Oakland and didn't hit particularly well in the majors before being traded to the Detroit Tigers. And while I won't go into a complete rant about it, it was odd for the filmmakers to create a composite of Beane's aides (most notably Assistant GM Paul DePodesta) in the fictional Peter Brand. Also Beane's daughter sings and plays a song about midway through the film that wasn't even in existence until six years after the film takes place (Lenka's 2008 single The Show). These wouldn't be major issues if Moneyball didn't excel in the research aspects of the film, as in the few actual baseball scenes you can see that they have accurate rosters in place for the times of the games, with the correct names stenciled on the back of jerseys. That the film takes pains in some places to appear authentic while simultaneously taking liberties with historical fact is not a bit distressing, as choosing pure entertainment every time is one of Sorkin's bad habits as a screenwriter. As a final note, the film points out that Beane still hasn't won a World Series using his system, but mentions that the Boston Red Sox won just two years later after adopting Beane's philosophies. This is what makes the story behind Moneyball so tragic; Beane changed the game with his methods, but once the big market clubs started looking at baseball stats in the same way he was, his small budget once again had him at a disadvantage. The film naturally glosses this over, failing to mention that Beane's club has not had a winning record since 2006.

Oakland sees a record crowd
These demerits are the only things that prevent me from genuinely placing Moneyball #1 on my Top 10 list for the year. While the narration does get slightly jumbled about the midway point (normal for a sports film compacting dozens of games into five minutes of time), Moneyball excels in telling a story that is smart enough for Bill James enthusiasts while appealing to a wide audience that doesn't need all that mystical mumbo-jumbo to get by. One of 2011's best, Moneyball is worth the price of a ticket as the #2 movie of the year. My father and any other baseball fan would approve.

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