Friday, September 23, 2011

Making Spitting Chaw Into A Dixie Cup Look Sexy: Moneyball

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Moneyball," based on the book by Michael Lewis, tells the story of A's General Manager Billy Beane, the team's record-breaking 2002 season, and how a former ball player and a recent Harvard economics graduate were able to revolutionize the game by throwing out the old rules about baseball drafting and scouting, in favor of acquisitions based purely on statistics. And not just the usual stats--instead, they decide the most important stat is a player's on base percentage, regardless of his age, ERA, or, most importantly, price.

Now, if all of this sounds a little dry, at times, it is. I can't imagine someone who actively loathes baseball being entertained by this movie. Add a disdain for math and stats to that mix, and this is probably not the film for you.

A's fans are likely going to flock to it, although I also wonder how entertaining it will be for them. If they're fans, they certainly know how the 2002 season ended, thus negating the only real excitement and suspense the movie really has.

I grew up in San Francisco, and aside from a brief bit of "Billyball" mania in the early 80's, (I was a kid; I didn't know any better), I have been a Giants fan, and a Giants fan only.

Thus, I really knew shit-all about the A's and their record during the early part of the past decade. As such, I was able to be surprised by the movie's ending; I'm not sure A's fans will be quite as enthralled. (But then again, sports fans can be an odd lot, getting entertainment from re-watching classic games over and over.)

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, and he's...well, he's Brad Pitt. He's good looking; he's got easy charm paired with moments of locker room rage; and he even makes spitting chaw into a Dixie cup look sexy.

The scenes between him and the old-school scouts, the A's manager (a perpetually pissed off Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Peter, the wunderkind stats guy (Jonah Hill), are great. That, and some exciting game scenes, are really enough to sustain the movie.

Which makes it a double shame that the filmmakers decided to shove in a story about Beane's ex-wife, (played by Robin Wright), and his pre-teen daughter, (played by Kerris Dorsey). Whenever that girl picks up a guitar and sings, (and she does it more than once), the movie screeches to a grinding halt.

I don't know if that storyline is in there to try and appease the non-baseball fans in the audience, (read: ladies), but it is unnecessary, and it doesn't work. This is a movie about the business of baseball, and that's enough.

Steven Soderbergh was originally set to direct "Moneyball," and I think he really would have been better suited than director Bennett Miller, who doesn't have Soderbergh's gift for non-linear storytelling and plot momentum. Large chunks of the baseball season just seem to pass unnoticed in the movie, and the flashbacks about Beane's early career as a high school draft pick with the Mets don't blend well into the narrative.

Aaron Sorkin had a hand in the final version of the screenplay, and there's plenty of his patented walking-and-talking dialogue. And much like he was able to do with "The Social Network" and its tale of nerdy Web site building, Sorkin is able to make something as dry as baseball stats pretty exciting, and when the movie sticks to that, it's great fun.

Finally, how pissed off must Paul DePodesta be? Imagine it. You find out the book in which you are a major character is being turned into a big Hollywood movie. Your former boss Billy Beane is being played by Brad Pitt! And you are being played by...Jonah Hill?!

OK, fine, he's got a different name in the movie, and is probably more of an amalgam of people than actually Paul Podesta. But still. That's got to be a bigger ego blow than leading the Dodgers into their worst season in over 10 years.

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