“MONEYBALL” My rating: B+ (Opening wide on Sept. 23)
133 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13
It doesn’t sound all that cinematic: A baseball general manager uses statistical analysis to bridge the money gap between major market teams and the provincial have-nots.
Flow charts? Graphs? Sexxxxy.
And yet “Moneyball” is one of the year’s best films, a thinking person’s sports movie overflowing with humor, drama, terrific characters, drop-dead wonderful dialogue (courtesy of the writing dream team of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) and a low-keyed but absolutely wonderful performance from Brad Pitt.
Heck, Bennett Miller’s film even made me appreciate Jonah Hill. It’s that good.
It begins with the American League playoffs in 2001. Not only do the Oakland Athletics fail to win a league championship, but general manager Billy Beane (Pitt) faces the next season with the knowledge that his best players — Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen — are free agents who immediately will be snapped up by teams with much deeper pockets.
Beane desperately wants to build a winning organization (his own playing career was marked by mediocrity and missed opportunities) but recognizes that the A’s will never have the money to hire and keep the game’s stars.
What to do?
A possible answer lies with Peter Brand (Hill, playing a character loosely based on real-life Beane assistant Paul DePodesa).
A recent graduate of Yale’s business school, Brand mixes a fat kid’s nerdy sports obsession with a steel-trap mathematical mind. He has this idea that you can put together a winning team by hiring baseball’s most undervalued players, basing the selections solely on a batter’s on-base percentage.
Everything else — fielding skills, age, fitness — is irrelevant. How often do these guys get on base?
This approach is hugely controversial, and some of “Moneyball’s” most delicious scenes find Beane going nose-to-nose with his crusty old-school scouts who rely on their instincts, not numbers. (These meetings, taking place deep beneath the stadium in cinder-block rooms in the blue-ish glow of of florescent lights, offer a perfect visual impression of the non-glamorous, grungy side of big-league sports.)
“Moneyball” follows Beane and Brand through the 2002 season in which they introduce their new system (today known as sabermetrics). It starts out disastrously, not in small part because A’s manager Art Howe (a deliciously dour Philip Seymour Hoffman) refuses to go along with these newfangled ideas.
But halfway through the season something wonderful happens. Just when it looks like all is lost, the Athletics begin to cook, going on to a record-setting 20-game winning streak and making it once again to the playoffs.
Sabermetrics makes the difference.
And believe me, there’s a lot to keep in balance here, with “Moneyball” working beautifully on multiple levels.
Though unconventional, this is still a sports movie, and it will have you rooting for the underdog A’s.
It’s a buddy picture, with Pitt’s Billy and Hill’s Peter forming a Mutt ‘n’ Jeff team willing to take on the baseball establishment.
And at heart it’s a terrific character study of a guy who, aside from running a pro baseball franchise, doesn’t have all that much going for him.
The divorced Billy Beane seems not to have a personal life, save for the occasional weekend with his pre-teen daughter (Kerris Dorsey). He tries not to interact too much with his players…that makes it too hard when it’s time to send them packing.
Moreover, Billy is superstitious…he refuses to watch the A’s play, believing it will jinx their chances. He follows the games on TV or by tapping into the video library.
Billy is, in short, a loner in a lonely job, a quality Pitt effortlessly projects. Aside from a few moments of cathartic anger this is a surprisingly quiet performance from a major star.
And yet the Pitt charisma is unavoidable, making his Billy Beane a compelling, even weirdly heroic figure.
| Robert W. Butler