Moneyball: Fresh, Original Baseball Picture

Now that star-actor Brad Pitt is playing more characters in their forties inching toward their fifties, reflecting his own age, it is fascinating to see his gorgeous looks not necessarily fade or decline–he is still gorgeous to look at and the camera as always loves him–but  his looks have certainly harden, fitting the recent character roles he’s been playing.  (Pitt is exactly the opposite of Tom Cruise, who’s the same age, but still smiles the way he did 20 years ago, and unlike Pitt, has not deveoped much as an actor)

Trailer: www.emanuellevy.com/?attachment_id=45269

In Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball,” an intelligent and original sports film based on the Michael Lewis non-fiction bestseller, Pitt (also credited as producer) navigates smoothly between being a charismatic and commanding mega-star and a versatile actor embodying a real-life personality in a particular locale and a specific story.  Pitt renders an impressively understated star performance, one that should win him another Oscar nomination and perhaps even critics kudos at the end of the year.

“Moneyball ” is a talkie (but not verbose) baseball movie, and to that extent, the dialogue often sparkles with punch lines, clever exchanhes, and witty observations.  The gifted scribe Aaron Sorkin, working with Steven Zaillian (Oscar-winner for “Schindler’s List”), does not achieve here the heights of “Social Network,” which deservedly won him last year’s Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.  But in many scenes, the conversations are sharply observed, well-written, and expertly delivered in a manner than recalls the good sports films of Ron Shelton in the 1990s (“Bull Durham,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Cobb”).

World-premiering at the Toronto Film Fest to excellent response, “Moneyball” will be released by Sony Pictures September 23.  While some critics may not like it, the movie should score at the box-office.  There are enough good, original, clever scenes in the tale to make “Moneyball” a beloved baseball picture by many viewwrs.  Here is a baseball picture that’s not cliche, not formulaic, boasting new narrative angles and ideas. (A colleague has already declared it “the Best Baseball Movie” made in Hollywood in recent decades, the kind of statement I do not make anymore).

Portraying the mid-life crisis of Billy Beane, Pitt renders an immensely likable, but not entirely satisfying, performance.  Pitt plays Billy, the general manager of what became the most impressive Oakland Athletics team about ten years ago.  A failed pro player himself, Billy looks for a way to improve on the baseball rulebook with what amounts, in this telling, to new and ‘innovative” ways of crunching numbers.

Billy hooks up early on with Peter Brand (busy actor Jonah Hill), a young numbers/computers guy straight out of Yale University. The two share a desperate desire to shake things up with the cash-strapped A’s and eventually, the film argues, baseball itself.

Based on Peter’s more-bang-for-your-buck calculations, undervalued players across the country soon find themselves suddenly packing their bags for California, with a new lease on baseball life. Peter, referencing the classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” TV special, likens the hodgepodge roster to an “island of misfit toys.”

But director Bennett, who made a strong impact with the Oscar-winning “Capote,” in 2005, only lets a couple of these players into the story. “Moneyball” is more the Anonymous A’s than the Oakland A’s.

“Moneyball” is at its most successful as a character-driven study, though it does have plot.  Many flashbacks to Billy’s entry into the majors and subsequent flameout (featuring a young stand-in for Pitt) stress that this man has always felt like a loser in life.

Miller, in his first film since being nominated for a best director Oscar for the terrific biopic “Capote,” for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Best Actor Oscar,  largely succeeds in telling a classic American redemption story–with a twist.

We tend to close one yey i f Billy’s character arc, as appealing as it is, does not in the end holds up to thorough critical scrutiny.  For example, several, rather crucial issues remain unclear.  Viwers may debate over whether or not Miller is suggesting that Billy forges a history-making team by finally getting over himself and becoming slightly involved in his players’ lives?   In the end, we still want to how precisely How changes in Billy transform the team’s fortunes and Billy’s life?

It helps that gifted character actor Jonah Hill is the standout, fitting snugly into his underwritten role as a nerdy type tiptoeing into the odd upper echelons of the baseball world. Hill brings the best out of Pitt as the Billy-Peter partnership builds.  With some justice (or is it more luck?), Hill should ggarner his first Oscar nomination in the supporting league.

A manic scene in which the two are both on the phone in Billy’s office, trading players left and right, is one of the best acted and best directed  scenes in “Moneyball,” a highlight aht will have audiences cheer and root for the men.

Although the tale begins in 2001, shortly after September 11, “Moneyball” mysteriously eschews the socio-political context and has little to say about the new millennium. It is a missed opportunity for a film that is as much about economic philosophy as it is about baseball philosophy.  Though the film is not intended as a cautionary tale, or Great Recession reflection, on the kind of financial shenanigans that got us to where we are now, it would have been nice to get some more contemporary and relevant insights.

Nonetheless, despite few shortcomings, the magic of baseball is alive and well in “Moneyball,” even if the ideas behind and surrounding that ever-evolving magic are not always fully or entirely successfully developed.

Overall, “Moneyball” offers up some mixed messages, some by design, others by neglect.  Billy and Peter’s methods are at once innovative in their embrace of new technology and authoritarian in the grand tradition of Hollywood sports management. The two supposedly uphold the underdog, but they show few signs of caring about the underdog as a person—it is all about the numbers attached to the player. And they seldom develop awareness of their own contradictions, which gives the impression that the film itself is somehow unaware of its own concerns.

Brief but effective performances by Chris Pratt and Stephen Bishop as players with as many minuses as pluses make the team’s eventual glories moving indeed. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an underwritten role as a team manager at odds with Billy and Peter

Cast

Billy Beane – Brad Pitt

Peter Brand – Jonah Hill

Art Howe – Philip Seymour Hoffman

Scott Hatteberg – Chris Pratt

Chad Bradford – Casey Bond

David Justice – Stephen Bishop

Miguel Tejada – Royce Clayton

John Mabry – David Hutchison

Tara Beane – Kathryn Morris

Sharon – Robin Wright

Credits

 

A Columbia Pictures release.

Directed by Bennett Miller.

Written by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian.

Produced by Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz, and Brad Pitt.

Cinematography, Wally Pfister.

Editing, Christopher Tellefsen.

Original Music, Mychael Danna.

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