Monday, September 26, 2011

Moneyball
















MONEYBALL            B                     
USA  (133 mi)  2011  d:  Bennett Miller

The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us. It’s an unfair game.         
—Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)

Something of a sleight of hand movie, as it focuses all its attention on Brad Pitt as the star, playing Billy Beane, still the current General Manager of the Oakland Athletics since the late 1990’s, where we see him early in his tenure on the field, in the locker room, the weight room, staff offices, on the phone, alone at home or in his car, as the camera follows him around throughout the entire film, where he’s the more flamboyant character, but he’s not what the movie is about.  Not really.  He’s the star, however, so the movie makes it all about him.  His role, however, is rather insignificant, as history has shown, as he barely makes a dent in baseball history, certainly not as this movie suggests.  Instead the real star is so carefully concealed that his name was changed in the movie, where Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, who was in real life Paul DePodesta, a shy, nerdy guy who sits in front of computers all day compiling statistics, which doesn’t exactly make for good cinema, but he’s the hero.  In a sport that’s all about speed, physical prowess and brute strength, he’s the odd man out, the guy who doesn’t exactly command respect on the field by people who have been part of the game for decades, so they take swipes at him, ridiculing his influence, decrying his baseball knowledge, as he’s never played the game.  Based on Michael Lewis’s book The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, published in 2003, the verdict is still out on what impact these statisticians have had on the game.  For the record, while not shown in the movie, the A's had a sterling pitching staff in the year shown, 2002, including a Cy Young Award winner in Barry Zito with a 23-5 record and the American League MVP in Miguel Tejada, while DePodesta at the tender age of 31 eventually became the General Manager for the storied Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004, the same seat inhabited by baseball legend Branch Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson, but his less than superlative results, trading some of the most popular players while compiling the worst team results in over a decade, eventually got him fired at the end of the 2005 season.  So much for Field of Dreams.      

Channeling his Robert Redford, Pitt looks every bit the part of a man possessed with winning, a guy who spits tobacco with the coaches and has a head for the game, but realizes he plays for a team in a small market that can’t compete with the giant-sized pocketbooks of the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, as they can’t afford to pay a decent salary, so any player that’s any good will eventually be lured by the smell of money.  The Athletics ($30 million dollar payroll) were actually being described as a farm team for the Yankees ($140 million dollar payroll), as New York annually lifted their best players by offering lucrative salaries.  This leaves Beane in a dilemma, as this is not a problem that needs to be addressed by rebuilding their team every year with affordable new players, each one hand selected by their team of knowledgeable scouts, but with a different concept about their approach to the game.  Beane was particularly impressed with how the Cleveland GM actually listened to this bespectacled and nerdy looking fat guy in the corner, a guy that would look uncomfortable in any room, who quietly thwarted his attempts when he entered their stadium to make a deal.  So he hired this guy as an Assistant General Manager and put his mathematical theories of statistics to the test, which took a blasting by baseball people completely upset with the idea of a computer doing their jobs.  As baseball is such a traditional sport, where players are always being compared to the legends of old, like Ruth or DiMaggio, Mantle or Mays, where blacks couldn’t play in the majors until the late 40’s, the idea of change does not exactly come easily or naturally.  Instead the baseball traditionalists, including his own manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) greeted DePodesta with a volley or criticism, where he initially felt like a ruse, or a sick, twisted joke being foisted upon the team, undermined by their own General Manager, as they were seen as a team of collectable spare parts. 

Beane is projected as a tragic hero, the little guy whose situation in life is in constant turmoil, made even worse by his own divorce, where he lives in some closeted apartment setting while his wife (Robin Wright Penn) is living in a lavish estate with a spectacular view overlooking the ocean, where they have a young 12-year old daughter in common (Kerris Dorsey) who has obviously been hurt by the separation.  When Dorsey sings this heartfelt autobiographical song (which turns out to be Lenka - The Show (New Version) - YouTube, a 2008 song covered in the movie by Dorsey:  Kerris Dorsey performs "The Show" by Lenka acoustic song from ...) about being torn apart in that whimsical manner of JUNO (2007), it’s easily the best scene in the film and becomes the driving force in Beane’s life, where he is obsessed with overcoming all possible odds to make things work.  This movie has something of a storied past as well, ironically having to overcome a radical overhaul of its own, as initially Steven Soderbergh was scheduled to direct the film, altering the existing screenplay by developing documentary style interviews to advance the story, which led to his ousting in favor of a more conventional style of movie.  Soderbergh has a spotty history and has been hit or miss in the last decade, but his more varied approach to filmmaking lends itself more closely to the DePodesta method, approaching things from a new or unique angle, instead of the more traditional star driven technique used in this film, which of course, doesn’t tell the whole truth, which is a major shortcoming.  The movie version belies the terrific talent on this team, which is actually the best in the past decade, while giving the impression they're instead a bunch of misfits and nobodies.  Many will flock to this film based on Brad Pitt alone, who is one of the executive producers of the film, but this movie just offers a feel good, tunnel vision, behind-the-scenes sports story that makes Hollywood feel good about itself.  There are some moments of candor, scripted by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillan who worked separately, apparently re-worked dozens of times before the final product, but there is nothing revelatory here.  All sports are more scrutinized by statistics than ever before because of the easy facility of computers, where scoreboards can update batting averages or a pitcher’s E.R.A. as the game progresses and there are hired hands that routinely crunch the numbers.  But sports at all levels are played by athletes who determine their own outcome, where much like the Olympics, there are occasional surprises, but the best players usually win.     

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