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Entries in Moneyball [2011] (1)

Saturday
Sep242011

Moneyball (2011)

Game Called on Account of Narcolepsy

"We need a two-and-a-half-hour movie about The Doors? Folks, no we don't. I can sum it up for you in five seconds, okay? 'I'm drunk. I'm nobody. I'm drunk. I'm famous. I'm drunk. I'm fucking dead.'"

--Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer

There's a reason this site is subtitled "Movie Reviews from the Last Guy Anyone Asks". I've been told many times that my warning people to stay away from a particular film is as good as an endorsement--and vice versa. So when I say that Moneyball, the critically acclaimed new movie starring Brad Pitt and co-written by Thinking-Man's-Blockbuster scribe Aaron Sorkin, is really, really lousy, I understand that I may as well drop you off at the theatre with best wishes for a great evening.

I hate sports. I don't understand them. I don't get their appeal to anyone not actively involved in them. And from what I've seen of many atheletes' behavior, I'm iffy on the appealing aspects in general.

You might look at that confession and think, "Of course he hates Moneyball! It's a friggin' baseball movie!"

True. But my dislike of sports hasn't prevented me from loving sports movies; good ones, anyway. Plus, this particular baseball movie was co-written by Aaron Sorkin, the guy who proved the world wrong by co-creating a Facebook film that's the opposite of totally lame. I went into Moneyball ready to be educated, entertained, and won over by a writer who makes wonkish dialogue sizzle. I left two hours later in a daze, the pride of having kept my No Walking Out on a Movie policy intact dampened by a heavy, cheated feeling.

If you know the story of Billy Beane (Pitt), feel free to keep going. This is a BOATS* picture, after all. If you don't know anything about Beane or his radical attempt to turn the under-funded 2002 Oakland A's into a championship team using stats instead of star-power, turn away now. I'm about to break down everything you need to know about Moneyball in fifty spoilerific words:

Bitter, washed-up-player-turned-general-manager hires Yale numbers whiz to recruit cheap misfits. Misfits go on a winning streak but fail to win the Big Game. Washed-up guy's techniques help Boston win the pennant two years later. Washed-up guy still washed up and bitter. Roll credits.

If you go to Moneyball, you'll see much of this unfold in the last half-hour. Leading up to that, you get lots of drawn out speeches about how the game is all about money, and how best to rig the system. You see lots of old men doubting the "young" punk with the big ideas, along with fat-guy/handsome-guy banter between Pitt and Jonah Hill, who plays stats junky Peter Brand.

What you don't get is a clue as to what makes this story worth telling in a dramatic form. To my mind, that fifty-word anecdote contains everything you need to know. But, again, I'm not a sports guy. So perhaps the macho, Two and a Half Men-style jokes and Beane's numerous, violent tantrums are appealing to "inside baseball" enthusiasts. To me, I see little point in a film that displays the greed and arrested development at every level of the sport without negatively commenting on it--or at least showing some kind of contrast.

I guess the big draw is that this is the story of how nerds changed baseball by going after players whose lack of sex appeal meant that teams could win championships without spending ridiculous sums on marquee players. But from what I understand, Major League Baseball still shells out ridiculous sums of money for marquee players; also, teams still win games and lose games the way, I assume, they always have. It's like trying to convince me that red dye 40 forever changed the way people perceive the taste of candy.

For me, the most entertaining part of Moneyball was picking out the non-actors in the cast. They're easy to spot, especially in the early scenes around the A's conference room table: a sad collection of real-life sports guys posing as scouts. I assume they're former sports guys because they have the stiff, non-actorly delivery of the Cro-Magnon jag-offs you see shilling Gatorade and car insurance on TV. For sports fans, I'm sure seeing whoever these people are on screen is a real treat. For fans of good movies, it's a bit like entrusting the CEO of Marvel Comics to draw The Amazing Spider-Man.

Sure, there are some winners in the cast. Chris Pratt is especially sympathetic as a guy whose elbow injury knocked him out of a stellar career. But as with the rest of the story, his journey is butchered by a screenplay that can't decide if it's a Bad News Bears knock-off or a documentary about sports figures (numbers, I mean, not people). I can tell director Bennett Miller is a big fan of Sorkin and David Fincher's The Social Network because Moneyball is packed with extreme, to-the-pixel screenshots of charts and graphs, accompanied by ominous music. The human drama is crushed under the weight of the film's insistence that the stats jockeying is the most compelling part of the story (I've also never seen a fictitious baseball film in which file footage of old games is used so disproportionately, in lieu of re-creating key events).

Pitt and Hill have to be the most bloodless lead duo the movies have barfed up this year. Pitt discredits his fun, nuanced work in Inglourious Basterds by playing Beane as a smirking, handsome cipher who would give Ryan Gosling's character from Drive a run for his money in a "staring into the middle distance" contest. A lot of this has to do with the writing, as Sorkin and co-scribe Steven Zallian obscure key parts of his backstory, leaving us with a guy who seems really sad all the time for no discernable reason (okay, I guess choking during every game of your Major League career would be kind of depressing, but I still don't know what caused him to freeze up; nor do I care).

For his part, Hill marks continues his transition to more serious roles by wearing what is supposed to be a look of studious concern throughout most of the picture. Sadly, it just looks like he's watching Pitt for reaction cues most of the time. I'll give Hill half-credit for branching out from raunchy comedies; full credit when he does it well.

Based on the trailer, I walked into Moneyball expecting a rousing, fascinating look at a key moment in baseball. Turns out that moment doesn't amount to much, and no combination of star-power or brand-name screenwriting can spice up an unnecessary story about employees finding more efficient ways to make their multi-millionaire bosses into multi-multi-millionaires. It didn't quite work out that way for Billy Beane, who Miller, Sorkin, and Zallian put in the dubious position of being the hero of a film whose ultimate goal is to shit on its hero (the last film I saw make two hours of that work was The Human Centipede).

If you're a baseball fan, this may be your movie of the year. If you don't know an RBI from an MRI, revisit Field of Dreams instead.

*Based on a True Story.