Pitch Perfect: Brad Pitt, Moneyball win big by moving beyond baseball.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Baseball, it can be said, is no longer a sport for the masses. The games take forever, there’s often not much action, and the prevailing notion that it’s the “American Pastime” is more a vestige of our fathers and grandfathers’ generations, not our own. So to hear that Moneyball is not just about baseball, but also the business and (yes) scientific/mathematic elements of the grand old game, it’s understandable for you to let out a big, haven’t-slept-in-three-days yawn and dismissively pass.
But boy would you be missing something. Moneyball instantly grabs you with the recurring sports motif of underdogs battling to compete with the Goliaths, and by letting you in behind the closed doors of baseball business it keeps you intrigued – if not fully captivated – throughout. Based on the true story of the Oakland A’s 2002 season, the movie follows general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he assembles a team of no-names that competes for the championship. How does he do it? That’s the fascinating part.
It’s called “sabremetrics” in some circles, but what it boils down to is this: It’s the analysis of baseball through statistics and empirical data rather than long-standing fundamental traditions of the game. For example, baseball wisdom says that when the leadoff batter gets on, the next batter should sacrifice an out by bunting in order to get the leadoff man to second base. But in sabremetrics the theory is renounced, because giving up an out when you only have three per inning doesn’t make statistical sense.
Accordingly, Beane and his Yale-educated economist assistant, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), devise a scheme to replace the statistical numbers they lost from the 2001 team with undervalued players who still have something left. Making matters worse is that the A’s only have one-third the payroll of the “big market” teams in Boston and New York (roughly $40 million versus $120 million), so Beane and Brand have to be especially selective about whom they choose.
Fortunately, they choose well: Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) makes the transition from catcher to first base, David Justice (Stephen Bishop) still has some good swings left, and Chad Bradford (Casey Bond), a sidearm pitcher whose hand nearly hits the ground as he throws, is a diamond in the rough. The same cannot be said for Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo), but like all things this is an inexact science. Making things even harder is manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who doesn’t buy into the sabremetric system in part because his contract is up for renewal. How Beane slyly handles Howe is a real treat.
If there’s a flaw in director Bennett Miller’s (Capote) story, it’s perhaps a bit too much emphasis on Beane’s personal life, including his own failed career as a player and his failed marriage to Sharon (Robin Wright). A few scenes showing Beane getting wooed and his failures in the big leagues would’ve sufficed; 15 minutes’ worth is too much. The moments with Beane’s daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), however, though at first tedious, do have a surprising emotional payoff by the end. A strong script by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), working from the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis, certainly helps the dramatic scenes resonate.
Credit also goes to Brad Pitt, an actor with underappreciated range who nicely gets us to like Beane while understanding his harsh business moves. An Oscar nomination may be asking too much ffor such a straightforward role, but Pitt’s screen presence is the glue that holds all the pieces together. Believe it or not, this was a passion project for Pitt (it was supposed to shoot in 2009 with Steven Soderbergh directing, but plans fell through), so to see him make the most of the opportunity is inspiring in the same way that we root for the underdog, hard-working A’s players who optimize their talent against stiff competition.
Moneyball does what many likely thought impossible: It makes a story about baseball science profoundly moving and interesting. Remember – you don’t have to like baseball in order to enjoy a great, extremely well-told story that happens to be about baseball.
Moneyball (3)½ Directed by Bennett Miller • Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright •Rated PG-13 • 133 min •At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.