October 16, 2011

MOVIES: Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

I left the theater thinking that Moneyball was a perfectly nice movie -- maybe even a very good one -- but a bit baffled by the level of awards buzz it's already getting.

Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane (not Billy Bean, mind you, whose role in baseball history is rather different), general manager of the Oakland A's; as the movie opens, they are being knocked out of the 2001 playoffs in the first round. Beane is determined to do better, and hires a new assistant who he thinks may have the answer.

Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, acquitting himself nicely in a role without a single fart or vomit joke) believes that baseball has placed too much value on the wrong things. To win games, he argues, you have to score runs; to score runs, you have to get men on base. Look for the players who get on base the most often, and you'll win games, even if those players aren't taken seriously when evaluated by more conventional methods. In fact, Brand argues, such an approach is perfect for a relatively poor team like the A's, because the players it will lead you to can likely be obtained at bargain prices.

(This is rather an oversimplification of the "moneyball" approach, as described in the Michael Lewis book on which the movie is based, but that was probably necessary for dramatic purposes, and the point is still made that Beane and his assistants were trying something wildly out of the mainstream.)

And we're off, as Beane and Brand try to build a team with an approach that their scouts don't understand and the team's field manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), thinks is utterly foolish. Howe seems to be right at first, as the team gets off to such a disastrous start in the 2002 season that Beane is at risk of losing his own job.

This is a sports movie, however, and Brad Pitt is a movie star, so it will come as no surprise (even if you don't remember how the A's 2002 season turned out) that the team turns things around in dramatic fashion, that Beane wins Howe over to his view of things, and that Beane becomes a star GM in the process, being offered great gobs of money to take his approach to other teams.

But here's the thing: The 2002 A's won a grand total of one more game in the regular season than the 2001 A's had done, and they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round again. That's what all the fuss was about? It's hard to imagine that Oakland fans left that last game thinking, "Hooray! We got exactly the same results as last year, but spent way less!"

It's not that Moneyball isn't entertaining. Pitt is settling comfortably into middle age, and has the look of a former athlete; the movie does a nice job of establishing that Beane has his own reasons for not trusting the traditional scouting system. Hill gives a performance that should get him opportunities beyond the braindead comedies that have been his specialty, and Hoffman does his usual skillful job of glowering and harrumphing about. There are nice turns from a variety of actors in small roles as the various players, and Kerris Dorsey is charming as Pitt's daughter.

But the movie does go on a bit long, and is essentially just another "triumph of the underdog" movie. There's not a lot here that we haven't seen before, and though it's certainly done with great skill and professionalism, there's rarely any real surprise to be found in it.

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