Monday, 12 December 2011

MONEYBALL: THE MOVIE

Moneyball the film is just as interesting for what it isn't as for what it is. It isn't a traditional misfits get together and start to win baseball movie, like Bad News Bears or Major League, though it threatens to become one at a number of times. And it isn't a particularly good explanation of what it is that Billy Beane bought into, and why it was so different to the rest of baseball. What it is, however, is a very good attempt at getting to the core of what Michael Lewis was writing about, which is Billy Beane and his character.

You probably thought it was about the economics, which is the point that people – especially baseball people-- always missed. Lewis was not saying that Billy Beane was the smartest guy in baseball, or that he'd found the best way to build a baseball team. Lewis was saying that Beane had realised something about the economics of baseball, and that if he were going to survive in Oakland, and produce a winning team, he would have to invest in those commodities that other teams undervalued. The film does a pretty good job of explaining that, though they basically boil it down to on base percentage and don't really show what that means.

But that's not the core of what Lewis wrote about. Lewis' theme, his persistent theme, is the maverick, the man who goes against the book, bucks the trends, follows his own drummer. He especially enjoys it when his maverick is obsessive, as Billy Beane is, and eccentric, which he also is, and the film is literally at its most successful when Brad Pitt's Beane gets to play off the stolidity of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Art Howe. That is the core of Moneyball, Pitt burning off energy on the stationary cycle in the bowels of the stadium while Howe sits impassively with his arms folded watching the season first collapse and then explode in front of him.

Moneyball might have been a more interesting film had Steven Soderbergh hung around to direct. The original adaptation was by Stan Chervin, the first screenplay by Steve Zaillian, and Soderberg's concept apparently would have included interviews, like Reds, and probably explained the baseball concepts behind Moneyball better. You can see the urge to make the film more accessible to folks who aren't baseball geeks, more like what everyone expects a sports movie to be, which is why the film as directed by Bennett Miller keeps edging toward those traditional tropes (and it's not just baseball, think of Hoosiers, or Miracle on Ice, or Bang The Drum Slowly, or The Longest Yard—all films about disparate characters learning there's no I in team--and that's why North Dallas 40 is such a good sports movie, because it subverts that entire message, and why it was so important in the original Rocky that Rocky NOT win) of the team that learns to play together turning into winners. But you can also see why Aaron Sorkin, who seems to specialise in making drama out of mundane non-fiction, would be find this story interesting, because his films are full of obsessives, misfits, and geeks, and also because Billy Beane is literally a Sorkin character come to life, full of fast-talking repartee, and every bit as driven, if not by the same drivers, as Sorkin is reputed to be.

Where the film lets down is in failing to make some of the obvious parallels stronger. Scott Hatteberg is a Billy Beane character: Beane's own career as a player stands as a monument to the ability of scouts to misjudge talent, or predict a player's ability to harness his own talent—Hatteberg's own doubts reflect Beane's and more might be made of that. Similarly, the film gets mawkish with Beane's daughter, but skips the potential for real conflict and literally ends with her offstage, speaking through a cheesy song she's recorded for him. They really need to explain Bill James more clearly, explain the Red Sox' John Henry and his attempted hiring of Beane better (Henry is given the film's 'hammer' (a phrase I coined in my book about Oliver Stone) speech, which hits you over the head with the movie's theme, in case you've been asleep for the past 80 minutes and missed it) and it would have been good to have answered the question of how, if Bill James was actually working for the Red Sox, Billy Beane was responsible for everything. It also would have useful to have credited Joe Morgan's gloating explanation of why Moneyball couldn't work, just so we could blame him for fatuousness.

It's also interesting that Jonah Hill is so obviously unathletic (until you see the film of A's extreme Moneyball propsect Jeremy Brown, a pudgy catcher who never really made it in the bigs, and he looks just like Hill) because Paul DePodesta, the executive on whom he's based, was actually a college baseball player at Harvard, so yes he was somewhat socially inept, quiet and self-effacing (which is why he didn't want his name used in the film, which otherwise uses real names throughout).

In fact, if Aaron Sorkin had got involved earlier, we might have been able to combine The Social Network and Moneyball into one movie, with DePodesta and Mark Zuckerberg duelling with their computers trying to impress Radcliffe girls. It's like Beane's the Rob Lowe character from West Wing, or maybe Josh, and Brandt is Toby. In Beane Sorkin gets to combine the handsome jock with the smart geek, and create an unclubbable god! In that sense Moneyball and TSN are the same movie, and end on the same note, with Zuckerberg and Beane both viewing or hearing the voice of their love, ex-girlfriend or daughter, who can't be with them. Sob.

2 comments :

John Harvey said...

Just saw and enjoyed 'Moneyball'. Couple of questions/observations - interesting the film,for narrative reasons as well as our feelings about the Beane character, had to move away from his self-imposed distance from the players and begin talking to them, geeing them up, basically making the difference - what we didn't see is what the Hoffman character [an oddly negative role] thought about this. Did he know? Resent it? Did he care? And, cheesy as it certainly is, the words of his daughter's song seem to capture pretty exactly my own 13 year old's 'stuck in the middle' feelings. Finally, any comparisons with/feelings about 'Friday Night Lights', the first season of which I've just finished watching and LOVED!

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