September 28, 2011
Moneyball for All
I was the guy who had to wait to see Moneyball when it actually opened in theaters, so I came in post-hype. I’d scanned reviews written by people I know, like, and respect, and the predictability of the reviews upset me. The movie seemed to have people digging into trenches long abandoned. Some proclaimed the film's mere existence was some sort of victory for sabermetrics. Detractors reminded everyone that Beane didn't win a World Series, but conveniently forgot that many of his processes, once iconoclastic, are now in every front office—including in those that have won titles with the ideas and philosophies originated in Oakland.
Still, I didn't know what to expect. I do this for a living. While I don't work in a front office, I like to think I have a decent idea of how things work in one. The Athletics were the first team I was ever assigned in my Baseball America days, so I've gotten to know many of the people I would see portrayed on the silver screen. Willing suspension of disbelief is an early part of any Film 101 class, but this was going to be difficult.
Then there was the origin of the film itself. I was fascinated—if not downright excited—about Steven Soderbergh’s original idea for the movie, a post-modern, hyper-real filming plan with the central characters playing themselves. Instead, it turned into an Aaron Sorkin device. Sorkin, while extremely talented in the ways of dialogue, is about as edgy as a Nerf ball and has more than a little Brandon Morrow in him—he's as capable of throwing an unforgettable one-hitter as he is of losing control of his stuff and needing to be pulled in the third. Hiring Bennett Miller—whose previous film, Capote, was itself a compelling character study about a man doing things his own way—made up for the watered-down concept.
The movie is ostensibly about baseball, and the baseball segments are entertaining, albeit woefully inaccurate. That's just part of making movies. I began explaining the inaccuracies to my girlfriend once we stepped out of the theater, and by the time we got home, I still wasn't done. From hirings to firings to various front-office machinations—including the role and attitude of scouts—the producers favored mass-market entertainment over reality. While that's understandable, it was still hard to leave the film knowing that people think this is how it really happened. As a baseball movie, Moneyball is well-executed. As a realistic portrayal of how things actually went down, it's laughable, but again, that's my problem, my own inability to suspend disbelief. My girlfriend, who has absolutely no interest in baseball, enjoyed the film, and that probably says everything important to the filmmakers.
Unfortunately, even when judged solely as entertainment, the movie sometimes falls flat. Just like Moneyball, there are market inefficiencies to exploit in the entertainment business, and unfortunately, that means ways to worsen the film while expanding the audience. The writers couldn't make Beane talk like Beane does, because that would mean an R rating, and R ratings equal less money. More importantly, they couldn't just make a baseball film. One could almost imagine a scene straight out of Robert Altman's remarkable industry takedown, The Player, with a film executive in a $3,000 suit insisting that the story needs a heart. Sorkin and Steven Zaillian headed to the Hollywood cliché scrapyard to dig up the storyline of Beane's relationship with his daughter, who is written as one of those utterly adorable, insanely wise and mature little girls that I'm sure had the producers cursing the fact that Dakota Fanning actually had to age.
In the end, I was reminded of Beane telling me two weeks ago about Oakland’s need to be risk-averse. Hollywood was risk-averse with this movie, and not to its benefit. The daughter scenes are a complete waste of time, seemingly included to please multiple demographics. They add an unnecessary heft to the film, as do a few embarrassing scenes with out-and-out attempts at emotional manipulation, like a supportive call from Beane's ex-wife when things seem down.
That said, the film shines at times. Sorkin hit all the right notes in writing an entertaining baseball film, Miller is a more than capable director, and cinematographer Willy Pfister knows when to go lush and when to go subtle. Thanks to the use of dark lighting and shadows to add to the immersion, the film is sometimes almost gorgeous while maintaining a gritty realism.
The cast is a mixed bag. The film is a wonderful reminder of what a fantastic actor Brad Pitt can be when he is cast in a role other than that of the most beautiful man in the world. Jonah Hill, who has many of the film's best lines as the Paul DePodesta doppelganger, is a great comic actor, but he's more of a subdued Jonah Hill in every scene than a character. Sometimes, Hill doesn't know how to get out of the way of himself. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who starred as Truman Capote in Miller's last film, is fantastic as Art Howe. However, the character itself is unfairly set up as one of Beane's primary antagonists when it comes to the new way of thinking.
Overall, Moneyball is a good movie. It's not a great film. Like most Hollywood productions, it was extremely well-executed, with nothing new or exciting, more than a bit tepid, and containing its share of pandering. It was worth the price of admission, but nothing more. I'm glad I saw it, but I'm not compelled to watch it again or buy a Blu-Ray. It's not some victory for the statistical movement, nor a collection of lies to be vilified. It's Hollywood, and there is no room for accuracy in movies because accurate equals boring in their world, boring to a mass-market audience. There is no guarantee that the Soderbergh version would have been better, and I'm told that his script was a disaster, but I can't help but want to see a film where art was a more important motive than profit.
Much like the book, I hope the movie helps to build a larger core of people with stronger-than-casual interest in baseball, I hope that more people begin to look into what makes a winner beyond batting averages and the bad video montages about heart and spirit that will overwhelm us this postseason. I just hope those new to this intellectual portion of the game can do it without taking sides. There are no sides. It's not even beer and tacos anymore, it's simply information and information.