Archival Footage and Concentrated Brooding
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill
Review written by Robert Patrick
If I had said that there would be a movie released this year about sulking and computer screens, you would probably predict that the film was about a depressed teenager glued to his PC. Alas, the fog has lifted and instead it is about baseball and grown men. Michael Lewis, the author of The Blind Side, penned Moneyball, a movie about the barbed innards of professional baseball and the stubborn codgers that run the show behind the curtain. These long-toothed mummies of the old ballgame put their wagons away, a long time ago, and are no longer trailblazers in an ever evolving sport. As it turns out, baseball is no longer about what meets-the-eye but what meets-the-Excel-spreadsheet. Scouts, according to Billy Beane, the ornery general manager of the floundering Oakland A’s, have more chance of getting the husk of a sunflower seed caught in their throat than they do finding a prospective big leaguer. Beane knows that if a kid has the bone structure of Mickey Mantle it doesn’t mean that he has the swing of Mickey Mantle. After all, the fuzzy-headed general manager was, at one point in time, touted as the best player to screw on a baseball cap since Roberto Clemente – only it was Beane’s playing career that went down in flames, not him (too soon?).
“Moneyball” is about a neo-gold rush in professional baseball. Where the panning for gold is done by digital sluice boxes and guys with brainy-bifocals. Close-ups of blurred font, pixelated headshots of outfielders and fluttering archival footage of pitchers dominate Bennett Miller’s film. This picture in no way mimics the aloof persona of “Bull Durham” or the incensed lore of “The Natural”. “Moneyball” is instead an often monochrome, drab, punchless exercise in monotony that is sometimes perforated by fleeting humor. Aaron Sorkin allegedly helped write the movie, but he had to be wearing gloves because I don’t see his fingerprints on this script. Aside from two or three zingers, this movie reads less like a screenplay and more like a calculus book.
“Moneyball” succeeds when it has the dog-eyed Philip Seymour Hoffman on screen. Hoffman plays the stubborn, unwieldy, portly Oakland A’s coach Art Howe. And while other actors are okay enough in their respective roles – Robin Wright shows up in the movie long enough to get three lines of dialogue in – Chris Pratt is the reason to see “Moneyball”. Pratt, who looks like he dropped twenty or thirty pounds to play the hapless Oakland A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg, seems to have rifled through Paul Rudd’s bag of tricks in order to embody the boyishly-naive-in-the-face-of-adversity shtick. Pratt’s affable demeanor and ice-thin nerves bring about the movie’s funniest and most multi-layered moments. Unfortunately he is criminally underused, in the bulk of the film, and we’re instead tethered to the rueful temper tantrums of Billy Beane (we get to see Brad Pitt throw chairs, drive trucks around in anger, stare into an abyss of nothingness for, roughly, 80% of the movie). Bennett, in an effort to beat a dead horse with a dead horse, recycles scenes of Pitt brooding to establish that our protagonist is under duress. In an effort to prepare for the film, I imagine Pitt spent his time researching for the part by staring, in a stoic glaze, at his bedroom wall. Pitt can brood Auguste Rodin’s statue, The Thinker, under a table.
Jonah Hill gets his first serious acting part as a Yale mathematician, named Peter Brand, whose first job is to analyze players in the Cleveland Indians’ system. Brand is as jittery as a windup toy, but he is a wizard with unearthing undervalued players, so Beane, in an effort to better his team, hires the socially inept Yale graduate as his assistant general manager. Hill isn’t as wonky and verbose as he usually is, obviously, but, because his wackiness is reigned in, he is efficient as the nervous and borderline-neurotic analyst that assists Beane’s megalomania-on-a-budget strategy.
For people who dislike baseball, you should know that if you happen to be dragged into the theater to see this movie, there is no supercilious romantic subplot or action laden hostage situation (sorry, people that loved “The Fan”). And for people that loved the book, you’re likely to be furrowing your brow wondering where key players – and stories – went. No mention of Barry Zito? None? Whatsoever? Even the kooky-delivery of Oakland A’s budget-friendly reliever Chad Bradford is reduced down into a five minute exposition. In order for this movie to have been entertaining and accurate, we would have needed less of Billy Beane and more of the team Beane put on the field. I’m sure the point would have gotten across, that Beane was a perfectionists with a steely fist, without twenty minutes of additional scenes where Beane is staring at inanimate objects in the darkness.
Even with a recklessly unnecessary subplot where Beane’s daughter serves as nothing but a Greek chorus, various repetitious scenes of Beane writhing in agony, and lots of closeups of computer screens, “Moneyball” isn’t a terrible movie. If you’re a baseball fan – a diehard baseball fan – you will enjoy this movie. And when I say that I mean that you have to be a season ticket holder. If you’re casually into knocking back a few brews and going to the occasional game, and you decide to see this film, you’re going to feel like you just got sucked into a computer’s operating system – no joke. But for big baseball fans there will be rewards in watching quixotic scouts spew seeds from their salty maws, stats fly by like a Nasdaq ticker, the crooked inner-workings of a general manager. Fans of baseball simulators rejoice!
Here’s my final stat line: