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Review: "Moneyball"

Moneyball is an instant contradiction, a fine humanistic film championing an innovative but dehumanizing method of team-building, reducing all star athletes to statistical equations. The film has two stories to tell, that of a middle-aged man finally making his mark on the game he was supposed to rule in his youth, and the reinvention of baseball management to achieve a more equitable playing field with or without mega-funds.

The story begins after a disheartening loss for the Oakland Athletics. The humiliation is compounded by the loss of three star players who the A's don't have sufficient money to replace. General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) butts heads with owners trying to get more money and with his own management staff who are entirely resistant to innovative thinking. Enter young economics / statistics master Peter Brand (Jonah Hill moving up to the majors?) who frees up Billy's mind with his theories on why so many players are over and undervalued. They begin to make controversial and provocative changes which mystify or anger the baseball powers that be  including their own team's manager Art (well played by Philip Seymour Hoffman).

There's a smart visual well into Moneyball's first act in which huge banners of the A's three lost stars are dropped from their places of honor crumpling as they hit the ground like the deflating egos of management. Billy takes the leap of faith with Peter and they rebuild with new players, a team of misfit toys, who are all undervalued (or not valued at all). Shortly afterwards, when we see the stadium again, there is only one banner trumpeting one of the League's oldest fan-beloved players David Justice (Stephen Bishop) whose glory days are far behind him. 

Moneyball's solid screenplay (by Oscar winners Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian) has a good joke at the expense of metaphors but I can't resist this one. For all of Moneyball's strengths, from a solid cast with vivid cameos (Reed Diamond from Dollhouse is superb in a one-scene face/off with Brad Pitt) to able and sharp direction (Bennett Miller of Capote fame) and editing (which skims veritable mountains of statistical information, old footage, and emotional backstory) it really all comes down to one star banner: Brad Pitt unfurled. 

I've been in this game a long time."

Yes, you have Brad Pitt, yes you have.

In his two decades of stardom, Pitt's best work has generally happened within three types: weirdos he attacked with gleeful creative gusto (Tyler Durden, Jeffrey Goines, Chad Feldheimer), strutting men that basked in their own golden light (J.D., Rusty and Paul McLean), and family men with wounded machismo (Mr O' Brien and Detective Mills);  In Billy Beane, all of Pitt's strengths coalesce as if he'd been in training for this one. He's loosely idiosyncratic and funny (that goofy business after a "good talk" with the humorless Art is just wonderfully endearing detail), he harnesses his potent movie star charisma with weary grace playing a man who, unlike himself, didn't live up to his golden boy promise, and in scene after scene but particularly when visiting with his teenage daughter, he lets his worried humanity show; he feels like a failure and this daring move is his last shot at glory.

Brad Pitt's shiny star turn is so good, in fact, that it neatly blinds you to the film's minor flaws. No one, including the man himself, is reinventing the wheel here and for all the star light that Pitt gives off, the film doesn't use any of it to fill in poorly lit corners. It raises but never addresses troubling side issues like what to do with the understandable revulsion that greets the dehumanization of players (exarcebated by so few of the players having distinct personalities) and it has a strange inability to flesh out the important side story of Art's insistence on managing the team in opposition to Billy's plans. The scene wherein Art finally capitulates to a different way of thinking would be a superb bit of economic storytelling in most films but here, given the underlit subplot, it feels like not enough as a wrap-up.

Billy continually worries that all of his accomplishments will be dismissed if he loses the final game of the season. The film needn't worry about the same thing. The final game here is a beautifully elongated nearly sports-free quietitude while Billy merely contemplates his options and a coda that works as a reprise of one of the sweetest earlier scenes with tenderness and even gently needling humor as the credits begin to roll. Late in the film we're told "you can't help but romanticize baseball" and it rang so true, even to me! I don't know the first thing about baseball, nor do I care to, but I was nodding my head like some dreamer in the bleachers waiting to catch that fly ball.  B+ 


Oscar Notes: It's rare when late August / early September hype survives intact the following February but (for now) it's looking like this may well be the golden year for Hollywood's golden god. In the past I've stated that Brad would never win until he was in his 60s (they make the adonises wait) but I'll quite happily be proven wrong since I've been on Brad's team for twenty years. Beyond Pitt's likely nomination (a third... and easily his most deserving since Oscar's idea of his "best" work is suspect.) I think you can safely bet on Moneyball's statistical scrappiness factoring into several categories barring those generally reserved for eye candy films. In short: we need to update our prediction charts

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Reader Comments (26)

Wow. I was expecting another Blind Side, to be honest.

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew R.

It's such a small aspect of the movie, but I was really impressed with Art Howe's characterization. Even though we're supposed to be behind Billy (and I was), I loved that Howe wasn't set up as some kind of villain. Having a GM undermine the manager by interfering in the lineup and team dynamics the way that Billy did is something that's simply not done in baseball. And to handle all that on a one-year contract? Unbelievable.

It was a smart way to show that, out of the many people who disagreed with Billy and his tactics, not all of them were completely in the wrong. Nice shades-of-gray storytelling.

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiz N.

The major problem for this film is the lack of Susan Sarandon! Is Moneyball Pitt's Brockovich? I love the term Brockovich. It makes Julia Roberts so happy!

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3RT

I would like to add to Liz N's praise for the work done on Art Howe and spin that into a question. Nathaniel, I'm not sure I understand your critique of the conflict between Billy and Art. I think a brilliant element of this film was how efficiently Art's character was built. In his first appearance we understand that he is at odds with Billy both because he is obviously a very old school baseball purist and because the expiration date on his contract looms heavily over his every move. The reason he insists on managing the team in opposition to Billy's strategy is as simple as a disagreement on the fundamentals of the game and the nature of the athletes. In fact I believe Art notes as much toward the beginning of the second act. He still believes individual performers produce wins, and his strategy is to play the best all-around players rather than the ones who provide for the team's needs most efficiently. There simply couldn't be a scene in which Art readily acquiesces to Billy's plans because he did not; Billy had to remove Art's conflicting options from the equation.

I would hate to sound condescending or reductive in any way but I wonder if your admitted lack of familiarity with the game would render the relationship between GM and Manager unclear. As Liz said, Billy's tactics were the kind that simply aren't done in baseball. It's cutthroat and undermining of the manager. It wouldn't be unlike a producer marching onto a set and forcing everyone to go against the director's instructions.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCasey Fiore

So who is Brad going to replace in your current top five?

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWellington Sludge

Andrew -- nope. :) but obviously this team was a good one i mean Miller, Zaillian, Sorkin, Pitt, etcetera.... class line up.

Casey -- it's not condescending to offer up a clearly thought out and totally polite rebuttal :) It's true that i have next to no familiarity with the game but i do think SOME understanding of Art's relationship to the team was necessary for buy in (for me at least). I get that he's the manager and I get that the war between them produces losses but i guess I would have liked more exploration as to how the players felt and what Art's relationship to them was. I don't mean "he's their manager" but "how is he managing them?" "do they like him?" "do they trust him and not Billy" etcetera...


September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I'm rather tickled that you're asking for more PSH, Nat. (I don't really get the - is "hate" too strong a word - on this site? Resistance to him, perhaps. Different strokes, blah blah. I've been on Team PSH for a while now, so clearly I'm prejudiced.)

I know that Pitt once played a younger Robert Redford in a movie but he never looked like Redford to my eyes - until I saw that top photo you posted, in which he does indeed remind of a Reford (when he first began aging.)

I'm not sure if I'll see this one. I enjoyed reading the review but have zero interest in the game (or Jonah Hill). That said, thank goodness this isn't another Blind Side, because the world surely doesn't need anymore of those.

I'm wondering how Woody Harrelson's chances for the golden boy are now vs Pitt. (I know Fassy was praised to the skies for Shame but is that AMPAS's type of film? Doesn't sound like it, unless the distributors promote the hell out of it.)

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

Nathaniel, I agree 100 percent about Brad and this particular performance. It's a such a soulful leading man performance that still has touches (always eating something, dip, peanuts, popcorn etc) of the character actor he so stridently tries to associate himself with.

I also love how the film does have its touches of baseball's nostalgia and romance, but it doesn't get bogged down or ruled by them. The intelligence and wit from Sorkin and Zaillian peaks through first. Kudos for pointing out the really skilled editing done here too. Along with the great cinematography, I think it's my favorite aspect of the film.

I actually wish too that they did give Phil Hoffman more to do. I feel as though that story arc was never really completed. I know it's Billy's story, but Art doesn't get a completed tale.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDrew C

Drew -- thanks for chiming in. Very good point with your second paragraph there about the nostalgia and romance present but non-dominant. I really loved the way the movie pulled out the romantic stops for the quiet finale though...

everyone -- anyway. OSCAR talk. boy does my chart need adjusting. I totally think Brad Pitt is in the #1 position now... and though it's still early i can see, for the first time, a scenario where even Leo DiCaprio doesn't get nominated for one of those default nominations one expects merely due to Stardom + BIographical Role + Oscar Bait Project without even seeing if it's any good.

September 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Isn't it weird that Best Actor seems to be already taking shape while Best Actress is pretty much wide open?

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterK.A.

I agree, Nathaniel, about DiCaprio not being the sure bet a lot of people assume he is. I do still think he'll be nominated, but I'm certainly not going to put money on it.

I think there are 7 strong candidates for Best Actor as of now:

George Clooney
Leonardo DiCaprio
Jean DuJardin
Michael Fassbender
Woody Harrelson
Gary Oldman
Brad Pitt

The only other two who seem to have an outside chance are Ryan Gosling (for The Ides of March, but I would guess that would only happen if the movie overall hit big with voters, which I'm not sure it will) and Michael Shannon (only if Take Shelter gets a huge push from the studio and ends up a favorite among critics at the end of the year). If I had to guess right now, I'd say Clooney and Fassbender are the two left out of the 7 I mentioned. Clooney probably because it will strike a lot of people as the same old performance (even if he's very good in it), and Fassbender because I'm not sure if his movie will have enough appeal with the Academy.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Paul

Critics are showering Pitt with praises. I really really hope they remember him when they start handing out awards in December, since they keep forgetting him year after year.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn D.

How about we wait till J. Edgar is seen by anybody until we start doubting a nomination for Dicaprio.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commentert rock

t rock -- how is that any different that general oscar speculation of anything before we see it? should Leo be exempt from the normal rules of speculation?

September 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

People, CLOONEY is not going anywhere.

EVERY review of 'THE DESCENDANTS' is glowing, to the point everyone says CLOONEY, PAYNE and the movie are the frontrunners and the Oscars are theirs to lose.

I also think if Brad Pitt is that good he'll win, mostly because Clooney has won already. But beware: if someone can follow Jack Nicholson's path and win 3 Oscars, it's George Clooney.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

I saw Moneyball yesterday and loved it. My fear is that it may have peaked too early.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPat

An Oscar equation:
Descendents = Sideways
George Clooney = Paul Giamatti

In other words, wrongfully snubbed for carrying a respected film and making it look too easy. Of course, it's too early to tell. But it's not an impossible scenario.

As for Moneyball. Mr. Rogers, I totally appreciated your lead-in about the basic tension in the film between its desire to be human and the fact that it's depicting an essentially de-humanizing new approach to baseball. I think the filmmakers probably worried the story would come across too cold (let's face it, most of watch baseball movies like A League of One's Own, which demand the coach and players, and not the general manager, triumph). But maybe they overcorrected? I was a bit distracted by the repeated close-ups of Beane's and Beane's mother's glistening eyeballs.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDusty

Dusty summed up why I left Clooney out of my current predictions. I fully expect the movie to show up in Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay (and possibly 1 or 2 other categories), but I don't think Clooney is a lock simply because I fear that people may take his performance for granted. Unless it becomes widely thought that this is the best performance of his career, I don't think it's safe to assume that he has a nomination assured.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn-Paul

1) #teamPSH

2) I haven't seen the movie, but I think this may be a Jerry Maguire situation. A megastar delivers an Oscar-worthy performance but he is still will be seen as only a megastar, with a nomination as the reward. They're gonna find a Geoffrey Rush very soon.

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Cal Roth -- possible. I've always (previously) believed that they'd make Brad wait until his 60s or 70s and he's such good a actor that he wouldn't have any problem at all winning one in a character supportign actor or leading grizzled eccentric way in his old age. but i kind of wish they'd stop punishing the male "beauties" and making my job of denouncing their terrible gender politics so easy year after year.



September 26, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think it's more than beauty. People don't reward pure star turns in Best Actor. They need to see a clear strong performance, they need to see you sweat. The last time they reward an actor for a performance based in star presence only was in Gladiator. Then... John Wayne?

All the other star turn winning performances inbetween were given by actors with strong reputations (Nicholson, Pacino), sentimental votes (Lemmon, Fonda) or undeniable ROLES (Voight, Hurt, De Niro). You just can't win with a star turn if people don't see you as a strong actor, you don't have a disability to act or you're not old enough.

Anyway, maybe a double nomination for Tree of LIfe (PLEASE, HE WAS BRILLIANT) too can perform the trick. Or he may end up winning supporting?

How do you see the prospects of a double nomination?

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

cal -- while i'd love to see a double nomination (i thought he was perfect in Tree of Life) i think that is extremely far-fetched given the reception of Tree of Life... it's basically one for the cinephiles... and the actor's branch resistance to performances within "director's movies" in general.

September 26, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Hey Nathaniel... This is part of my problem with how the screenplay streamlines the baseball action and philosophy a bit too simply for non-fans, but the statistical analysis route does not "dehumanize" players -- it just tries to evaluate them more accurately. No matter what means is used to winnow the wheat from the chaff, players are cut and acquired in an "It's just business" manner in the major leagues.

(The film also oversimplifies traditional scouting vs number crunching, when all teams use both. It's part of why a lot of hardcore fans who loved the book, like me, don't like the film.)

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill Weber

This "Moneyball" role came out of nowhere for Brad Pitt, huh? Well, good for him I guess. I thought his chances for "Tree of Life" were good in the summer until that film flopped. Maybe now he gets in for "Moneyball" as recognition for the range he showed in both films. Or double nods for the year he's had? A category with Clooney, Pitt, and Leo in it? People'll have a fit. I wonder how that will all play out for Pitt in the coming months.

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFitz

Yep cal roth, they'll find their Geoffrey Rush very soon. His name is Jean DuJardin. Watch out for him if "The Artist" makes BP.

But I saw "Moneyball" over the weekend, and I was impressed by Brad Pitt in it. I thought the nature of the film would prevent serious Oscar talk, but I'll trot out that old, "if Sandra Bullock can win an Oscar for an awful football movie, then why can't Brad Pitt win one for an acclaimed baseball movie?" Especially if the box office is steady. I think with this and "The Tree of Life" swirling around still in people's minds, it might be that "career coronation" time for Brad Pitt. And can you imagine the media blitz of Brad and Angelina everywhere when Brad is winning all of these awards? It'll be huge, trust me. I'd agree that it's a sad reality that the Oscars make the marquee male movie stars wait and wait for recognition they should have received years ago (hell, I would have nominated Brad Pitt for "FIght Club"), but for the ladies, it takes so little for the first-charm glow to equal a win (lookin' at you Sandy, Reese, Halle, Gwyneth, Helen, and on and on). But it is what it is.

And I'm also Team PSH! All the hate thrown in the guy's direction is excessive already.

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUrey

Urey -- but did you even read the review. I was nice to PSH this time ;)

September 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R
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