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Josh Reviews Moneyball!

November 2nd, 2011

Is anyone else as amused as I am by how closely Brad Pitt, in the new baseball film Moneyball, resembles Robert Redford in the classic baseball film The Natural (click here for my review)?  It’s spooky, man!

Anyways, Moneyball is adapted from the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.  The book (which I have never read, but it’s been on my to-read for a while now and has been bolted up to the top of that list after I watched the terrific film adaptation) elaborates upon the technique of sabermetrics, a type of baseball statistical analysis that focuses on in-game performance as opposed to other intangibles (like leadership, heart, etc.).  The book, and the film, focuses on the Oakland A’s 2002 season, and on their General Manager Billy Beane, who was one of the early adopters/pioneers of this strategy.

I’ve always loved baseball, but these days with my incredibly busy life I don’t follow the game with anything approaching the passion and devotion I did as a kid.  Growing up as a die-hard Mets fan, I listened to almost every single game on the radio (WFAN New York) and when I couldn’t (like when I was away at summer camp) I would voraciously devour the box scores (which my parents would faithfully mail to me several times a week).  Moneyball is a fantastic film and, more than that, it’s a fantastic baseball film, and it really brought me back to my days as a kid analyzing, with my friends, the ins and outs of every game and every player.  The film really made me miss those days!!

Baseball is a magical sport, and has always fascinated me the way no other professional sport does.  Although one aspect of Moneyball is to debunk many of the assumptions of the game (and to reveal the inherent unfairness in which certain ball-clubs with enormous payrolls — cough Yankees cough — can spend their way to victory after victory, leaving the small-market teams in the dust), the film also pours over with a love for baseball and a fascination with its complexities and mysteries.  The sequence, late in the film, chronicling the A’s incredible win-streak from the 2002 season is thrilling, an incredibly-realized reminder of the powerful pull of baseball at its best.  It’s as good a celluloid love-letter to the game as I’ve ever seen.

I also really love the scene in Mr. Beane’s office right before the trade deadline, in which he works the phones, wheeling-and-dealing to acquire the players he thinks he needs.  All that talk of trades is a bit inside baseball (to use a very appropriate metaphor), steeped in the specific baseball details, but it comes to vibrant life because of the great performances and the tight script.  I knew a script credited to Stephen Zaillian (who also wrote Schindler’s List, Clear and Present Danger, Hannibal, Gangs of New York, and many other great films) and Aaron Sorkin would be a winner (duh!) and I wasn’t wrong.

Brad Pitt is fun to watch as Billy Beane.  I don’t know how real-to-life the performance is, but Mr. Pitt creates a charismatic and compelling character.  I’m not quite sure what the deal is with all the eating-on-camera Mr. Pitt seems to do in his films these days.  Has anyone else noticed that?  It always draws a laugh because a) it’s so unusual to see actors eat on-film (mostly, I gather, because of the unpleasantness of having to do that same eating over and over again, take after take) and b) because watching super-star hunk Brad Pitt chow down on junk-food is so incongruous an image… but the device is starting to feel to me more like a  Brad Pitt gimmick than an actorly technique.  Maybe I’m being overly critical.  Still, I’ve always found Mr. Pitt to be a fascinating actor (despite his movie-star persona) and he continues to be fun to watch dig into a role.

Jonah Hill plays the “composite character” of Peter Brand.  The character is described as a composite of several people who assisted Billy Beane in transforming the way the A’s did business, but apparently the role is mostly based on Paul DePodesta.  (This article sheds some light on why Mr. DePodesta asked his name to be removed from the film.)  The role might be somewhat fictionalized, but it totally works.  Mr. Hill is very funny dialing his energy way, way down to play the quiet Mr. Brand, and his deadpan deliveries are a terrific comedic counterpoint to Mr. Pitt’s energy.  The working relationship and friendship that develops between the two men as the 2002 season progresses is the heart of the film.

The film rides squarely on Mr. Pitt and Mr. Hill’s shoulders, but there are some strong actors in supporting roles.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, sporting a fierce buzz-cut, is terrific as the A’s manager Art Howe, who wears his loathing for Billy Beane’s methods right on his sleeve.  Chris Pratt (who tears it up every week in his hysterical performance as Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation) brings an enjoyable innocence to the role of Scott Hatteberg, the catcher picked by Beane to play first base.  I also was quite taken by Stephen Bishop’s performance as David Justice.

In the end, if you love baseball, you’ll love Moneyball. But what’s so impressive about the film is that, even if you don’t love baseball, I think you’ll be quite taken by the movie, as well.  I don’t think I’m wrong!

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