Friday, August 07, 2015

"Moneyball": review

Let's cut to the chase: I liked "Moneyball," but I didn't love it. Even without knowing the details of the true story—and the book about the true story—on which the movie was based, I could predict the movie's general arc and major beats with ease. The biggest problem with "Moneyball" is that its screenplay is co-written by Aaron Sorkin, who is perhaps best known for his work on TV's "The West Wing." Sorkin is a fine writer of dialogue, but no matter what project it is that he's working on, he tends to have his characters interact with each other the same way. The dynamic between "Moneyball" principals Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill has obvious parallels to interactions between Martin Sheen and either Dulé Hill or Richard Schiff on "The West Wing." Sorkin's fingerprints are all over "Moneyball," and that fact, along with the very telegraphed plot arc, means that I can see the puppet strings—never a good thing when you're a mature movie watcher. Put simply: "Moneyball" lacks suspense.

The story is about Billy Beane (Pitt), a former pro-baseball player and now general manager of the Oakland Athletics (a.k.a. the Oakland A's). The Athletics aren't as rich as teams like the Yankees; their performance in the Major League has been flaccid, and their best players are constantly being plucked by bigger, better teams that can offer enormously high-paying contracts to the players they're hunting for. Beane's round-table council of hoary old men must struggle with picking new players while facing the harsh reality of a limited budget. Year after year, the selection process works the same way, and Beane is now sick of the results. Beane meets Peter Brand (Hill, playing a fictional character); Brand is an adherent of the statistics-based "sabermetric" theories of Bill James: instead of using the old, supposedly "intuitive" ways of selecting baseball players for a team, Brand advocates gathering people based on their stats. This method, when adopted by Beane, produces unorthodox, counterintuitive, and thoroughly unpleasant results that upset the hoary old men in the conference room as well as the Athletics' manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is as old-school as the geriatric round table. But something happens after the A's experience a losing streak: they suddenly click onto a winning streak that goes on for twenty games, propelling them into the championship, and Beane's heretofore disparaged sabermetric method becomes the talk of Major League baseball.

"Moneyball" is different from other sports movies in that its point-of-view characters aren't the players: they're the management. There's also a great deal more theory and a lot less of your boilerplate, in-the-trenches action. This isn't a typical sports movie, then: it's more of a meta-sports movie, focusing on the rarefied realm of stats and what they imply about the actual nature of baseball as a game.

But if "Moneyball" holds no suspense for a baseball-indifferent person like me, it'll be even less suspenseful for any baseball enthusiast who knows anything about the Oakland Athletics' early-2000s history, and about Billy Beane in particular. I thought the movie was well acted; critics were right to highlight Brad Pitt's handling of the role of Beane. Jonah Hill, here a proxy for Dulé Hill, also does decent work as Peter Brand. Philip Seymour Hoffman easily incarnates a pudgy contrarian manager, and some of the supporting cast, like Chris Pratt, were a welcome sight. Kerris Dorsey plays Beane's daughter Casey with soulful tenderness. Spike Jonze makes a surprise cameo as the new husband of Sharon Beane (Robin Wright), Billy's ex-wife.

Overall, "Moneyball" was watchable—once. It's not a movie I'd be in any hurry to see again. I don't know what the critics were raving about, given the easily foreseeable plot and the utter lack of suspense. Perhaps the reviewers were concentrating purely on the quality of the acting, which was undeniably good, but not good enough to make this a gripping tale.


No comments: