Hollywood Elsewhere Reviews Moneyball

March 28th, 2011

Hollywood Elsewhere
By Jeffrey Wells

What Happened Was…
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That guy I know who often see films months in advance caught a version of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (Sony, 9.23) last night, and…well, here he is: “I loved it, and I didn’t expect to. It’s a baseball-from-the-business-angle movie, for goodness sake, and to be honest on my way over I was asking myself, ‘why am i even going?’ But this film is a triumph of storytelling, editing and a little bit of star power.

“I gather the story is more or less the same as the one in the Michael Lewis book, so there shouldn’t be any news about the plot. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the onetime general manager of the Oakland Athletics who created a moderately hot team through shrewd analysis and a “sabermetric” approach (whatever that means) to scouting players, etc.

“Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman give the two biggest supporting performances. Robin Wright, Kathryn Morris and Tammy Blanchard have the lead female parts.

“Pitt is great in a non-Oscar-bait role — a renegade tough-love hardass at work, and laser-twinkling as an estranged dad. Hill is fantastic as a number-crunching nobody, and is really wonderful underplaying everything. And the baseball scenes…honestly, you won’t know if you’re seeing archival footage or recreations, and the guys playing the players…! For the most part you don’t know if you’re watching amateur actors play real ballplayers or vice versa, but it totally works.”

The producers are Scott Rudin, Michael DeLuca and Rachel Horovitz. The script was originally written by Stan Chervin. Stephen J. Rivele, Steven Zallian and Christopher Wilkinson wrote drafts under previous director Steven Soderbergh, or so I’m given to understand. Aaron Sorkin rewrote everyone when Miller took over or Soderbergh.

Update: Another HE reader was there also and has this to say:

“Sports films are almost never really ‘about’ sports. They always have a primary, more traditionally cinematic concern on their mind: a relationship on the rocks or a budding romance, the rise of the downtrodden or the triumphant return of the forgotten or discarded. Even the notion of the big game being won is a well-trodden, pedestrian conceit that serves as the usual metaphor for the final challenge a protagonist or team must face.

“Moneyball may well be the first sports film not seen through the prism of a romance a la Bull Durham, a character drama a la The Blind Side, a tragedy a la Brian’s Song, or a comedy a la Major League. Rather, it is the first of its kind: a sports film seen through the prism of sports.

“The plot concerns Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) the general manager of the Oakland A’s, a team that has just lost several of their star players going into their 2002 season. After hiring a Yale-educated economics genius named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Beane comes up with a completely new way of drafting players using a complex method of number crunching and statistical analysis. Beane and Brand figure out that by hiring certain players who are under-valued by the league, they can mathematically improve their chances of getting players on base, thus scoring more wins. Given the process’ completely experimental nature, Beane faces constant pushback by colleagues and must struggle to see his theories through to fruition.

“Pitt and Hill both turn in great performances, with Hill in particular killing every scene he’s in. The dough that’s settling into Pitt’s angelic features serve him well here, giving him the feel of a beat-up man cutting a path through exhaustion and frustration.

“Director Bennett Miller, writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, and Sony Pictures have gone ahead and come up with something truly unique and special. Moneyball has little concern for things like drama, character arcs, or third-act thrills. There are elements of each of these things to be found in the film, but it is first and foremost a movie about baseball, about the intricacies of sports and statistics, and how a passion and deep understanding of the minutia can lead one down the possible path to victory.

“But the victory at the end of said tunnel matters less than the process of digging through the numbers and dealing with the politics to get there. Oddly enough, a film that comes to mind when thinking about Moneyball is David Fincher’s marvelous Zodiac. The films share DNA in their obsession with obsession, a fixation on the moment-to-moment procedure of things. Moneyball is not as good a film as Zodiac, but the similarities are there.

“Miller’s direction is subtle, leaning heavily towards clean frames and smooth steadicam movements, letting the dialogue and information pitching to take center stage. It’s hard to know where most of Moneyball’s dialogue comes from, but it doesn’t feel completely like an Aaron Sorkin screenplay and comes off more as something from Zaillian. Certain scenes feel very Sorkin-esque however (such as one where Billy sits in a room before his cadre of scouts and hilariously announces the new direction the team will be taking). The film is very well written in terms of presenting large quantities of information in a way that’s digestible, but it’s not a script filled with ‘big scenes’ or ‘powerful moments.

“Rather, it’s largely a distillation of the very things the characters are pouring through: data and theories. The filmmakers seem to have purposely avoided doing the clichéd moments we’ve come to expect from sports films, such as the “big locker room speech.” Just when Moneyball seems to be heading in such a direction, it boldly takes a left turn and refuses to pander to genre expectation, a move that should be applauded from a creative standpoint.

“Contradictorily, the very things that make Moneyball special also present problems. Its deep, deep focus comes at the expense of traditionally satisfying moments. There’s very little tension present, and the story is low on drama. Granted, this is intentional by the filmmakers, but does result in a feeling that the stakes are not as high as they could be. Moneyball is always interesting, but rarely gripping. It also feels a little flabby in its current iteration, and could use some trimming.

“Flaws aside, Moneyball is ultimately a very special studio release. Uniquely nerdy, obsessively wonky, and yet still compelling and engaging, it’s a rarity: a baseball film rife with inside baseball and proud of it. It’s a movie that becomes about itself: the filmmaking on display feels as experimental (for a big studio film) as the one taken on by the characters. In spite of the niche-like nature of its focus, Moneyball is well made enough to be appreciated by anyone that digs original filmmaking, and it’s not afraid to take a chance. Kudos to the filmmakers and Sony for taking a risk.”