Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Moneyball - Theatrical Review


Release Date: September 23, 2011

Was I excited to see this movie? Not really. Was I sad that I saw this movie? Not really. Would I have been sad if I had not seen this movie? Not really. Would I recommend this movie to anyone? Not really. Is a bad movie? Not really. So what's wrong with it that I can't fully get behind it? Nothing really.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 12 Glendora
4:40 pm September 24, 2011  
Projector Type:
Digital 2D
Film Rating:
Film Runtime:
2 hr. 6 min.  

Brad Pitt
Underdog stories
Sports movies in general, Jonah Hill
Films that throw cheap tricks at you in order to get an emotional reaction 
I am not a baseball expert

I am not a baseball fan or a fan of any particular sport as a matter of fact. I am a fan of good movies though and for whatever reason the sport of baseball has produced some of the most iconic and classic movies of all time. Whether it be a comedy (Major League), a fantasy (Field of Dreams) or a mixture of fantasy and drama (The Natural), baseball is my go to sport for quality film making. Since I know very little about the sport beyond the basics of how it is played on the field I am constantly mesmerized whenever I get a chance to peak behind the curtain. So a film like Moneyball is right up my alley with ITS focus on the inner workings of the sport as opposed to a story dealing with the players and their personal struggles which even given my own personal feelings on the matter has been done to death. The question remains though, is Moneyball worthy of all the other baseball film greats or is it simply a footnote in a long lineage of mediocre sports films?

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the General Manager for the Oakland Athletics and after yet another losing season is looking for any way that he can put together a winning team. He has a fraction of the budget other teams have, is losing three of his star players and is under a tremendous amount of pressure from the team owner, the press and the fans in general to produce a team capable of getting the wins they need. That is when he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). A recent Yale graduate who has devised a way to cheat the system when it comes to how to recruit players. Billy hires Peter on immediately and together go down a road that will change not only their team but the entire way baseball played forever.

Billy has a lot of reflective moments like this.

This is based off a true story and from what I have gathered it is fairly accurate in how it presents itself. But I have no idea what is real and what is dramatized so to be fair to myself, you and this movie I am going to treat it as I would any other film regardless of any truths or falsehoods. So as a film Moneyball is a completely story and character driven piece. It doesn't really care very much if the audience is up to speed on the current state of baseball. We don't even get much insight into other ball clubs outside the Oakland A's. Our central focus is on Billy Beane and his struggle to turn a losing team into a winning team with a fraction of the budget that any other GM has to work with.

Most of the film plays like we are a fly on the wall as we get an inside peak into the world of player recruitment. The A's are losing three of their star players and must find a way to replace them in order to keep the fans happy as well as hopefully bring in enough talent to get the team out of the hole it's in. This set up is your classic underdog story with one man being put up against insurmountable odds with almost no hope of success. We see Billy try every single method he can to get his job done the way it is supposed to be done, when he approaches the owner of the team and asks for more money he is turned away and in some of the film's best sequences he is constantly at odds with his recruitment staff comprised of mostly seniors who think the best players to acquire are ones with good looking wives (apparently that equates to a higher confidence level). So despite this rather generic set up it already had me hooked because I was seeing a side of baseball I never really gave much thought to let alone understood.

The scenes around this table are some of the best in the movie.

The twist (or should I say curve ball...?) to how all this plays out is what truly makes Moneyball standout though. Once Billy hires on Peter as his consultant (after a rather humorous first introduction at the Cleveland Indians stomping grounds) the film finds its true footing. It may sound kind of silly to say that the best parts of the movie deal with number crunching but it's the truth. Not only do Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill have great screen chemistry with one another but everything their characters do or say together was captivating for me. When a film has two characters staring at a board filled with numbers as one explains the statistical analysis while the other just sits and nods his head and I'm not bored out of my mind then that means it's working.

That can be said for most of this film though. It is strange to think that the best moments of a sports movie are the ones off the field but it's true. Whenever the story started to drift a little and we started to get those oh so tiresome scenes of players being recruited, spring training montages and the random moments of players conversing with each other my interest level began to drop immensely. For every interesting scene involving the building of the scheme that Billy and Peter were working on there was almost always a follow up scene that threatened to put me to sleep (the bloated length of the film didn't help either). There is a lot of yin and yang going on here which is a shame because if they would have stuck to their guns and just focused solely on the whole money ball aspect of the story instead of trying to infuse personal human drama into the mix then it would have been a resounding success.

Doesn't this look captivating? Well, it is.

Some of the areas of the narrative that felt overly forced were all the scenes with Billy and his daughter. Other than a really well done moment between the two of them in a guitar shop (which resulted in one of the best original songs from a movie this year) I didn't see any need to bring his daughter into the fold what so ever. We see Billy go visit his ex-wife to pick up his daughter for the weekend where he meets her new husband played by Spike Jonze (what the hell is he doing in this?). Besides getting to meet these two new characters this sequence serves no purpose at all. All it does is give Billy someone to root for him when he is down and cheer him on when he is doing good. Seriously, the ex-wife and her husband only ever appear near the end of the film again where we see them watching the big game on television. Why did we need to meet them?

I understand that Billy Beane is a real guy and that his family most likely helped him through this personal ordeal he was going through but the movie is called Moneyball, not Billy Beane. If it does not help or effect the flow of the story in any way shape or form then it is by definition a side story. A perfect example of how to integrate the personal triumphs or failures of a person's life into the narrative is how the film handles Billy's back story. We are shown in a series of flashbacks that play all throughout the film how Billy came to be the GM at the Oakland A's and it was all quite fascinating to be honest. Most importantly though was that it helped let us understand Billy's mindset and gave us some much needed perspective as to why he was going through with such a crazy idea as the one Peter has suggested.

Scenes like the this we needed less of.

Let me spend a second to explain what the concept of what they were attempting to do was though because it really is pretty ingenious if not a little soulless. What scouts had done for over a century of recruiting baseball players was look for the whole package. Good looks, athletic, smart, a good fielder and good at bat. If any of those were lacking then the player was most likely far down the list. What Billy and Peter were doing was looking for the best way possible to secure wins, almost like finding ways to beat the casino in Las Vegas. They would then cherry pick players that were on nobodies radar (and on the cheap) either due to injuries or issues with their personal lives. If a player got on base more than half the time but can no longer play their position on the field then they would train them on another position. It didn't matter if they were mediocre on the field, what mattered was them getting on base which equates to runs and ends in wins.

Once you begin to understand what they are doing it helps you get invested in their lives and the story in general. That is what a good underdog story does, it sets up the protagonist to fail and when they succeed it feels great which is only sweetened if they use unconventional methods. Those unconventional methods also provide many of the more lighthearted moments in the movie. In particular I loved the back and forth between Billy and the manager of the team Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Billy wants him to play certain players at positions that logically make no sense at all and Art fights him on it all the way. The humor comes into play with the manner in which Billy finally forces Art to put in the players he wants and was a highlight of the film every time the two of them had a scene together.

Jonah Hill is the real star of the film.

I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention the actors or more to the point the acting. Brad Pitt is a fantastic actor but let's be real here, this was a cake walk for the man. He paraded around the entire time just being Brad Pitt which was fine but it was noticeable he was giving it his all. The real star of the film though was Jonah Hill who stole every scene he was in. I have never been a huge fan of his but I think he has finally won me over. Not to the point where I will go see something because he is in it but instead to the point where I won't avoid a movie because he is in it. All the other actors were fine but we never got to see much of them due to them being in the background most of the time. Which I was fine with because the less stuff involving secondary characters going through the motions the better.

Moneyball is a good movie, not a great one or an amazing one but a good one. Technically it is filmed well, has a cast of actors that work well together and had an interesting story to tell. The fact that it was true only helps it. If not for the more cliched baseball moments (a manager flipping over the ice cooler in a fit of rage or a home run hit winning the game) and had been about half an hour shorter it would have made my list of must see baseball movies but in this case it just misses that strike zone. If you are a baseball fan then you most likely have already made up your mind about seeing this but if you are like me and have no particular love for the sport then I suggest you give it a chance. It is a good film regardless of the fact that it is about any particular sport and I think that speaks volumes to its quality. So if you get the chance I highly suggest you...




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