October 02, 2011

Moneyball

My first question was 'how do you turn this book into a movie?' Michael Lewis' non-fiction, straight-up baseball insider, journalistic piece on the first-time, gung-ho, willful use of sabermetrics to put together a ball club is not a book for everybody. While it is true that Lewis made the nuts and bolts of front office team management accessible to anyone with an adult attention span and a curiosity about how things work, it's not something everyone would just pick up and start reading. Stat wonks (like Earl and myself) could eat it up. But people who have actual lives might find the book, however uncomplicated it may have been crafted, easy to walk by.

My second question was 'why did it have to be Brad Pitt, can't you find an actual actor to do this?' And I think I'd be forgiven for the query seeing as how - though I've never seen anything he was ever in before - so many people seemed to voice the same question.

And my third question was 'after pestering my wife to come along with me to see it what if it turns out to be a total waste of time?' We don't go to a lot of movies, and she would let me know if it was, to be sure.

Director Bennett Miller answered my first question thus:

You make a movie out of this by combing the background details given in the book on Billy Beane's past and why something like sabermetrics would interest him (he's a 'bonus baby' who gave up a full scholarship to Stanford to go for the big money offered him by major league baseball who then proceeded to become a complete and miserable bust as a player), and really working on the interactions of people when ideas clash for primacy. Throw in the underdog hook, add the personal touch of how a kid (his daughter) deals with stuff when her parents are divorced, at no time pander to the lowest common denominator and underestimate the intelligence of your audience, and top it off with a musical score that gets kind of haunting after a while (because it's basically a movie about an idea inside someone's head), and somehow find a way to film something like this beautifully.

Brad Pitt answered my second question this way;

Apparently he was a force behind getting this project made because he got passionate about the possibilities and translated that into making you forget 'that there is Mr. Jolie Brad Pitt the good-looks glamorous Hollywood movie star'. At the point you might be tempted to dismiss him as a lightweight you also forget that it's Brad Pitt because both his characterization and everything surrounding him has pulled your attention in another direction and you are totally hooked on the story. And if I never see anything else he's done or will do I walk away from Moneyball thinking he's very good at his craft. I had a teacher once who said that the first job of the actor is to allow you to forget who he is and make you believe you're looking at somebody else altogether. Bingo.

MrsRW answered the third question when she said the only real criticism she had was that it might be a tad too long; which is something I'd agree with from a commercial standpoint, though because I got wrapped up in the world it was portraying that didn't seem to bother me - or the people in the theater - too much. In fact I heard some of the things other people have said as they walked out, and was especially impressed with an older lady who loved it and wanted her husband to be sure they call their son to tell him he's GOT to see the movie... "and I can't even stand baseball." Her direct quote.

And the fact is that woman's comment pretty much sums up the experience. If you're a baseball wonk it's nothing but a baseball movie with all this other stuff going on that isn't boring. If you're into human interaction and acting, per se, you'll eat up the dialog that, when appropriate, is either sparkling, hilarious, real and sometimes perfectly mimics those uncomfortable, choppy moments between people who are trying to be cordial but have other stuff going on in their lives. If you're into sentiment and romanticism you've got the underdog thing and the child of a divorce bit. In short you can pretty much make this movie about anything you want it to be.

But the main undercurrent is the power struggle between what is established and what is different. That's what everything else is wrapped around. If there is any anti-establishment sentiment left in your time battered psyche after all these years it will be revived. Probably unless of course you're a Yankee fan. In which case you will come up with any number of reasons why this ain't all that. Seeing as how people who don't know baseball at all will get a little inkling as to why you, in point of fact, are the Evil Empire.

There are any number of things that the literalist could point out that were altered to make the real story it's based on work in a movie format. Jonah Hill's character is a fictionalized interpretation of the real Paul DePodesta, who is neither a dumpy nerd nor "never worked in baseball or ever had a job" before Brad Pitt plucks him out of nowhere. In exchange you get a legitimate contender for Best Supporting Actor at next year's Oscars. This is probably the major point to make. DePodesta is nothing like his composite alter ego that was fabricated in the movie.

Another critique, strangely or not strangely enough, comes from the baseball world itself. The line of questions work like this...

"If Moneyball works so well how come it hasn't produced a championship?"

-or-

"This is a movie about how Billy Beane took a small market team that has had moderate success and some total flops and made it into a small market team that has had moderate success and some total flops. So what?"

And outside of the fact that these questions have nothing to do with the movie they are the comments you will hear regularly from the inside baseball world who are still, to this day, knocking the value of what Oakland accomplished at that time. Of course the simple answer is that most of the the team managements in baseball today are employing some form or version of the techniques and approaches started by the Oakland A's in the era the movie portrays. While it is true that if Beane had nine figures to throw around he would do it, observant and intelligent baseball people have gleaned some truths about player analysis and therefore the game has, in fact, been changed. The goal was to make a competitive team with less than half the resources of the New Yorks and Chicagos of baseball. Insofar as they've done that from time to time the goal is accomplished. And the fact that it's been less successful in the last few years is more a testament to the fact that many other teams have incorporated the techniques and are more properly evaluating talent and its relationship to money, so that there is now less of an opportunity for Oakland to find the hidden gems. That's Moneyball folks.

Plus the fact that the last 300+ words could probably spark most of any controversy that may follow in the comments, should pretty much wrap up the package of why you should go see the movie.

But strip all the above away and what you have is a movie that treats you like a grown-up. Actual dialog. An actual story. You won't like it if you want special effects and a continuous stream of mayhem and unconventional weaponry or fighting disciplines. Though the unconventional idea may be what the whole thing is about.

Recommendation: a must see. Go.

3 comments:

sybil law said...

I've wanted to see it since you first talked about it. It's pretty freaking hard to get me to an actual theater, though. I like baseball, but I don't LOVE baseball. However, I think the promos for this movie make it seem more of a human movie all around.

B.E. Earl said...

Great review. I agree 100% with everything you wrote.

Except for the expectations you had for Brad Pitt's performance. I think he is an underrated actor who spends too much time doing crap like the Ocean's 11 films. I knew he was going to be one of the film's strengths and he was.

I was a little disappointed at the cavalier way the trades in the film were put together, but I also understand that the actual process was/is a tedious one that would have been boring to just about anyone but me.

Great flick.

Gino said...

pitt can act, and he used to, a long time ago. he doesnt have to anymore.