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Movie Review: “Moneyball”

Sep 232011
 
 By , September 23, 2011

“Moneyball” | a film review by Gary Chew

Jimmy Piersall in 1953.

Not since “Fear Strikes Out,” that dark, 54-year-old biopic of Boston Red Sox outfielder, Jimmy Piersall, has there come a baseball picture that lends itself as much to the cerebral as Bennett Miller’s Brad Pitt vehicle, “Moneyball.”

Instead of a player with bipolar disorder, it depicts a compartmentalized, struggling general manager: real life’s Billy Beane and his early 21st century Oakland Athletics. How, nine years ago this month, they won 20 games in a row —with less than a perfect roster— is what the script hangs on. It was an American League record. Uh… that’s the one the Yankees are in.

What’s so heady about “Moneyball” is that it’s not about watching people play baseball as much as how men in the A’s front office scheme and try to change strategies for winning games without spending money like a bunch of damn Yankees. The overriding arc of the piece is how people’s thinking about winning baseball games can be changed.

Much like the 2011 economy, the 2002 Oakland Athletics were short on cash to replace their better, higher-paid players. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) happens on to a young, nerdy economics major out of Yale named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill,”The 40-Year-Old Virgin”). Brand turns Beane on to applying econometric strategies (commonly employed by profiteers in finance) to statistics of baseball. You know, like RBIs, ERAs, base hits, getting on base and runs scored, etc. Beane argues his way through the crusty, old codgers in the clubhouse (assorted A’s scouts and coaches) who only focus on personal stats that any particular team members rack up. But Brand calculates the aggregate of those numbers with other statistics from team members and players who may be or have been newly acquired by the club. There in Nerdsville, the whiz kid arrives at sums that suggest the A’s have a good chance to take the American League Pennant and the Series.

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

Nerdism comes to baseball! What would Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra say? Pretty heady stuff for sportswriters, maybe—and, of course, Keith Olbermann.

I love the game, too. But I’m not taken with intricate numbers that a GM might juggle to get his team scoring more runs. I don’t take baseball that seriously. Which makes me wonder how other fans might feel about “Moneyball.”

Sorry, I’m not riveted to my bleacher seat watching a sports movie that, for the most part, depicts a gaggle of coaches, managers and owners bickering about statistics, players and, mostly, money. That’s even if Brad Pitt is shown, lots, in anger and anguish, in striking close-up, darkly-lit shots of his chiseled face and way cool haircut. (I am jealous of Brad’s hair, yes.)

Besides visually interesting scenes shot in the Coliseum, site of the A’s and Raiders’ home games, there are moments in “Moneyball” when players are abruptly cut from the team. For some reason, the audience surrounding me found that funny. Although baseball players aren’t the lowest paid people on the planet, the game certainly doesn’t treat them like individuals, especially when compared to corporations.

The great Philip Seymour Hoffman is seen as Art Howe, the A’s head honcho on the field. PSH is never not good in a film but, with the paucity of screen time he gets, his appearance seems a casting about for the sake of gravitas.

Brad Pitt and Kerris Dorsey.

Speaking of appearing briefly on screen, don’t blink. You may miss Robin Wright, who plays Billy’s ex wife, Sharon. The couple has a 13-year-old daughter called Casey. She’s played by Kerris Dorsey. Kerris is in the movie not to steal a base, but your heart. She sings a sweet song for her Major League daddy with lyrics that may bring a tear to your eye. (For such stuff, I’m always a sucker.)

The list of writers for the “Moneyball” project nearly make up a basketball team: Steve Zaillian, and Aaron Sorkin (screenplay); Stan Chervin (story) and Michael Lewis, who wrote the 2004 novel, Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

Bennett Miller has made his film deliberate, low-key and slightly dark. That tends to make one think, “Ah, a film with weight.” Some might rush to Oscar-ponder “Moneyball.”

Don’t let Miller’s atmosphere punk you.

Sure, Brad Pitt’s worthy of Oscars. His recent, better performances are scribbled right here in my notes: “Babel” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” And as Fitzgerald’s curious Ben Button fellow, he was quite effective. But “Moneyball” is not Mr. Pitt’s tour de force.

By the way, this is such a baseball movie, it has a scene near the end at Fenway Park with the very excellent Arliss Howard, of AMC Cable’s defunct but very excellent “Rubicon” series. Howard does the part of a Boston Red Sox executive.

How do you like those beanes?

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Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.
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