Friday, October 7, 2011
After going rigid with rage in this year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt is all fluid energy in Moneyball, marshalling his considerable gifts to rampage through the Oakland A’s clubhouse like an alpha dog off its leash. It’s an intense performance—you’re as conscious of the intelligence behind his level, measuring gaze as you are of his sheer size and strength—but its delivered with the looseness and grace of a man who knows who he is and where he wants to go.
It’s a good enough performance to make the movie worth seeing, but even Pitt’s effervescence can’t quite oxygenate Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s script, which sputters to life for the subplots but keeps stalling when it returns to the main story.
Beane’s barely-there home life is sketched out nicely in a handful of scenes, including just one resonant snapshot of his California-girl ex (Robin Wright) and her insufferably mellow new husband (Spike Jonze, in a very funny uncredited cameo). Keris Dorsey also makes a strong impression in a short time as his touchingly reserved daughter, and her jauntily wistful rendition of Lenka’s The Show gives the film its emotional resolution.
But the meat of the story is left a little too raw. Moneyball is about Beane’s transformation of an underfunded, struggling baseball team into a near-winner (in 2002, the year in which the film is set, the A’s tied the record for consecutive wins), which he achieved with the help of a Yale-educated numbers wonk who had embraced a new way of evaluating players through computer analysis of statistics. The Michael Lewis book on which the film is based reportedly explains just how they did that, but the movie leaves it frustratingly vague, the camera often panning over columns of numbers that are left unexplained.
We see the team turn around after Beane trades away a few players and starts holding two-on-one sessions with the players and his numbers guru, Peter Brand, helping his athletes recognize and play on the strengths he and Pete see in them. We hear the philosophy behind his and Pete’s use of statistics, which they see as a way to replace the old-school, from-the-gut method of evaluating players that inevitably overvalued some and undervalued others. By cherry-picking undervalued players, they assemble a winning and relatively cheap team Pete calls “an island of misfit toys.” And we get a glimpse of how it worked when Beane recruits players because of how often they get on base, regardless of their batting averages or other statistics. A walk is as good as a hit, he later tells one of them: What counts is that you get to first base, not how it happens.
That’s an intriguing premise, but imagine how much more interesting the film would have been if it had explained more about how the players were being evaluated and then shown how those criteria translated into wins on the field. And where they failed, since, as Beane himself keeps pointing out, the A's didn’t get any farther in the playoffs right after he changed his recruiting strategy than they had in the two years before.
Instead, we just watch our motley collection of underdogs do badly and then do better, in classic sports-underdog fashion, without quite understanding why, though we are saved from choking on formula by the team’s failure to capture the coveted pennant—and by Beane’s decision to turn down a chance to cash in on his (limited) success.
There’s nothing visually inspired about this film, which features way too many scenes of Beane driving around alone in his car, a motif so uncinematic that I bet it came from the book, which presumably clued its readers in on what Beane was thinking behind the wheel. Without the benefit of X-ray vision, though, not even Brad Pitt’s chiseled profile can hold your interest forever.
Even the baseball scenes rely on the game’s inherent drama rather than interesting camera angles or lighting for their interest. When a ball in one key game is shown arcing through the darkness from on high at night, heading toward the camera as it falls, it seems to have arrived from another movie altogether.
But there’s some nice, snappy dialogue, and someone—maybe Sorkin, since that’s one of his signature themes—does an excellent job of portraying the peculiar form of love that can develop between workaholics who bond over work. Jonah Hill plays Pete as the perfect lapdog acolyte to Pitt’s big-dog leader, spitting out numbers and names on demand with a brilliant nerd’s awkward mixture of diffidence and confidence.
In the end, their little team of two is the only one that counts in this sports story. Moneyball makes you feel the excitement of their gamble and the thrill of their victory, even if it never quite explains how they did it.
Written for TimeOFF