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Moneyball (2011)

October 31, 2011

9/10 Pickin’ Machines

It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.

Moneyball is based on the true story of one Billy Beane, a former ballplayer who couldn’t cut it in the big leagues, took a job as a scout, and ultimately landed himself a gig as the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, one of the poorest teams in baseball in terms of bank roll and wins. After coming to the realization that he didn’t have the financial resources to compete with big-budget teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, he decided to scrap the old way of building a team by drafting the best body or swing, and instead recruited players by their stats. Though written off by many at the start of the ’02 season as having lost his mind, Billy and his crack squad of Sabermetricians took a team of nobodies that nobody wanted and ended up changing the game entirely.

It should be pretty obvious at this point that I watch a whole lot of movies in my free time. It’s crazy, it’s probably why my eyes are so damn dry all the time, but when I’m not tethered to Netflix or overdrafting my bank account to fund the New York City theater conglomerate, I’m reading my ass off. It’s cheaper, it helps me zone out the ten people blaring dubstep through their headphones on the subway commute each day, and every once in a while I come across a book that reminds me why I love books. Moneyball by Michael Lewis is one of those books, one that may very well be in my Top Ten. That’s coming from someone who thinks watching a regular-season baseball game on TV is the most excruciatingly boring thing in the world next to solitary confinement. With that being said, good lord, was I skeptical about this movie.

As incredible as Moneyball is as a book, it’s not exactly tailor-made for the big screen. It’s like Freakonomics mixed with The Natural, only most of the action happens in the clubhouse than on the field. That’s not to say that the book isn’t riddled with one unforgettable underdog story after another that made me want to high-ten the nearest train conductor, but so much of it really is about the stats which – though endlessly fascinating in text – might not get the audience cheering for more. In addition, so much of what made the book great is Michael Lewis’ writing, and translating an author’s voice to film is always a near-impossible task.

But that’s what great about the way everyone involved approached this movie. There seems to be this clear love for the book, a love for the game, and a general understanding that in order for this to work, they have to make it their own while staying true to the source material. From the actors, to the writers, to the director, everyone is on board with this plan from start to finish and that’s really why it works as well as it does.

Aside from the performances, the thing I love about this cast is that they’re as unlikely as the characters they’re playing. Brad Pitt, “Sexiest Man Alive” 23 years straight, playing the eclectic, unglamorous general manager of a baseball team that no one but Oaklanders really care about. Jonah Hill, best friend to McLovin, playing it straight in a suit and tie as Peter Brand, the brains behind the new clubhouse. Chris Pratt, the resident endearing bonehead of Pawnee’s Parks & Recreation Department and an actor who a lot of people are unfamiliar with, playing Scott Hatteberg, the beefed-up, down-and-out hero of our story behind the plate. And then there’s Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and he’s actually perfect as Art Howe, the team’s curmudgeonly manager who refuses to go along with Billy’s schemes. Not to say that everyone else isn’t perfect in the respective roles, but it’s a motley crew alright and it’s just what the doctor ordered.

And as far as all the Oscar buzz around Brad Pitt is concerned, I can see it and I would nod in approval if he took home the gold come February. Ever since Inglorious Basterds, my opinion of Pitt has changed drastically from that of “pretty boy” to “where it’s at.” It’s always something to see an A-lister who doesn’t buy into the global opinion of him and opts to take edgy, off-beat roles rather than the fattest paycheck. Not sure why it took me ’til Aldo Raine to come to this realization, but he’s still killing it as usual. Then again, the supporting cast here is every bit as good as he is and it’s hard to give Pitt all the credit when the story is as much about Beane as it is about everyone around him.

Nor does it hurt that they were given one hell of a script to work with thanks to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Since Sorkin’s behind it, it’s wordy as hell, but it works because Sorkin’s one of the few writers out there who can make the alphabet song read like a State of the Union address, and with all the information that’s jammed into the book, it needed a wordy screenwriter to do it justice. It’s really a trip the way he and Zaillian capture the language of the bullpen and pay tribute to Lewis without trying to mimic him, and right from the get-go, I was all-effing-ears. But like I said, this is a team effort among everyone involved and the cast does a phenomenal job of downplaying their lines, keeping a level head when tempers are rising, and acting naturally instead of seeing who can yell louder. For a sport where screaming matches and temper tantrums are a pretty common occurrence, it’s nice to see a more calm and collected approach that makes the occasional loose cannon sound like an atom bomb.

In short, it’s a glowing example of how you adapt a great novel into a great movie by making it your own and not following the source material verbatim. Still wish Sorkin had left in the draft where Beane picked up Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, and David Justice rather than just skip to spring training, but a minor complaint all the same and a nonexistent one for anyone walking in blind. Also love how much focus they lent to Hatteberg’s story, because Scott Hatteberg is the freakin’ man.

Director Bennett Miller also makes this thing look beyond gorgeous and in turn adds a real sense of beauty to the game that’s rare to come by in a genre that tends to focus on the dirt, the dip, and the dudes. For a movie that could easily be categorized as a talking heads drama, a Ken Burns documentary, and a good old fashioned sports movie, it’s incredibly impressive how he balances each and fuses them together seamlessly. Makes me wonder why he only has two movies to his credit, but whatever the reason, I am dying to see more.

I know this next statement may come across as blasphemy to some, but this is one of the best baseball movies I’ve ever seen. It’s no Field of Dreams, but in a business where people get to make sports movies each year that are carbon copies of the same sports movie that’s been coming out since Rocky, it’s incredibly refreshing on so many levels to see something different that also pays off as something truly inspirational and familiar. That was the beauty of Moneyball as a book, and though that could have been the reason this movie crashed and burned, the way everyone involved came together to prevent that from happening is just one of the many reasons it managed to set a bar that sports movies rarely ever get close to reaching.

So if you haven’t read the book, READ THE BOOK, but if that ain’t gonna happen, go see Moneyball anyway and enjoy what is far and away one of the best movies I’ve seen all year and may be the only movie that pulls a Social Network by excelling on every single front. Had me smiling the whole way through, had me feeling romantic about the game all over again, and that’s about all a former little league pitcher-turned-movie nut can ask for.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2011 9:31 am

    I didn’t love this like you did but I have to say I really liked how everything came together real well, especially Pitt’s performance. He’s getting older day by day and keeps on looking more and more like Robert Redford but he is owning just about everything he’s apart of. Good review my main man. Glad you loved it.

    • October 31, 2011 10:06 am

      Thanks! And he really is getting that Redford look, huh? Totally agree about his performance, too. He’s been so much better as of late than he’s ever been in his career. Go figure.

  2. October 31, 2011 5:36 pm

    I was glad to read a review from someone who had also read the book. I read it years ago, but I never managed to make it to see the movie. I’ll catch it when it comes out on disk. Ihad been curious how they would be able to translate the book into a film.

    • October 31, 2011 5:56 pm

      Man, continue spread the word on the book. One of the best literary epiphanies I’ve ever had. And for a book that I thought would be near-impossible to translate to screen while doing justice to the source material, it’s incredibly how well it ended up being. It’s something different altogether so that you can still read the book and see the movie and come away with two very different experiences, but since they’re both exceptional in their own rights, I think that’s a big reason why I liked it so much. Definitely check it out, see it in theaters if you can.

  3. December 21, 2011 7:56 pm

    Fantastic script and acting, I agree. Just watched it. It’s in my Top Ten of the year as of now.

    • December 23, 2011 12:27 pm

      Same here. Would love to see it again actually. If you’re at all interested, check out a documentary called Catching Hell. Came out this year, about Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who caught that foul ball a few years back and now has to live in secrecy because of it. Totally fascinating look at the sport that’s very much in the same vein as Moneyball. Will review it one of these days…


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