Monday, February 6, 2012

Oscar's Best Pics: "Moneyball"

On paper, "Moneyball" ought to be perfect for my household. We love baseball, we love baseball movies, and my husband is a computer programmer who loves statistics and was on-board with Bill James and SABR ages ago. I think he even wrote for some of SABR's publications back in the early 80s. SABR, by the way, is the Society for American Baseball Research, and it provides the SAB and R in "Sabermetrics," which is all about using statistics and empirical evidence to analyze baseball players to figure out who has helped and can help your team win.

It's what Jonah Hill's fictional character Peter Brand brings to the table in "Moneyball," opening the eyes of a desperate Billy Beane, GM of the then-hapless Oakland Athletics, helping the team rise from the cellar of the American League West.

Billy Beane is real. Peter Brand is not. Most of the other characters in "Moneyball" are real, even though in various cases, they're Hollywoodized, prettied up, made more conflicted or drawn in sharper lines to create drama. Obviously, that process worked for somebody, as the film has done very well and earned not only a Best Picture nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but a Best Actor nomination for Brad Pitt, playing Billy Beane, and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Jonah Hill as his schlubby numbers guy.

Frankly, I'm mystified as to what all those Oscar (and AFI, BAFTA, Golden Globes, SAG and various guilds and critics groups) voters are seeing. "Moneyball" is okay. Brad Pitt is okay. Jonah Hill is okay.

But what should be an exciting story about how technology changed baseball, how the people who ran a very old and traditional game came to accept something new and different, instead feels soft and sluggish. Brad Pitt is playing the same world-weary, down-on-his-luck, sad sack you've seen a million times in better movies, from better actors. He coulda been somebody. A contender. He screwed it up with his ex-wife. He has a cute kid. He wants to do better, to show he's not just a nobody, a loser.

Yeah, well, that line forms behind Terry Malloy, Roy Hobbs, Rocky (Balboa), Rocky (Graziano), Jake LaMotta, Bull Durham, Jim Piersall, all those Angels in the Outfield, and that guy in "Field of Dreams."

The real Billy Beane is a perfectly nice looking guy, if not a Golden Boy like Brad Pitt. But he also has intelligence, intensity, energy... None of which holds true for Brad Pitt's Billy Beane, who mostly plays like... Brad Pitt. He's sweet. He looks a little scruffy, I'm guessing so that we can see that his Billy Beane is down on his luck. In general, he acts kind of hang-dog and depressed. We mostly see him driving around, staring into space or kicking furniture (to ramp up a little intensity, I suppose.) If you're thinking I found this Billy Beane less than compelling, you would be right.

As his sidekick, Jonah Hill is amusing. Slightly. But no more than that. His real-life counterpart, Paul DePodesta, is better looking than Hill, in a weird Hollywood reversal. But DePodesta supposedly didn't care for the way he was represented in the first drafts of the "Moneyball" screenplay, so he opted out, and they created "Peter Brand," an amalgam of several different people, instead. Hill does well personifying a nerdy computer guy stereotype and looking befuddled when called upon to talk at scout meetings where they discuss players' potential. And he and Pitt create a nice buddy chemistry.

But it's all so dull... So soft-focus... So slow...

I liked the scenes with the scouts, who I think must be real-life scouts drafted to act as themselves in the film. They seemed gruff and hard-boiled enough to be the real thing, plus they offer a nice contrast to pudgy sweetpea Peter Brand and world-weary Brad Pitt-Beane. (I have a hard time calling the character Billy Beane, since there is a real Billy Beane who is so little like this one.)

And Chris Pratt, who is so good as a doofus on "Parks and Recreation," does fine as Scott Hatteburg, a player only a Sabermetrics guy could love. They even did a decent job intercutting footage of the real Hatteburg with Pratt at the plate.

But the talents of Robin Wright, who plays Beane's ex-wife, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a very fictionalized version of Athletics' coach Art Howe, and especially Tammy Blanchard, as the mostly invisible wife of a player, are wasted. And Spike Jonze, the director, seems truly bizarre as Beane's ex's flaky new husband.

"Moneyball" strikes me as a movie with no there there. It's all mood and no content, all hunches and no statistics, and it runs at 2 hours and 13 minutes, which is about 40 minutes too long to establish Beane the character and show us how he turned around the A's against the opposition of baseball's entrenched money men.

In case you're wondering, the Sabermetrician in the house also votes thumbs down. He thinks the numbers are far more interesting.


  1. OK, one to wait and get from the library then. I will 1) see Hugo at the Normal Theatre and 2) read another good baseball book (or two) instead!

  2. Other people have really, really liked Moneyball. Including Roger Ebert. But I still don't get it.

  3. Do, please, see Hugo, Kathleen. I can't be absolutely sure of someone else's taste, but I bet you'll be glad you saw it. I'm very much the Hugo evangelist these days. (And I was pleased to see in Libby Gelman-Waxner's Q&A column, when someone wrote in asking for confirmation of a bored dismissal of Hugo, she replied with a rave, essentially squelching the questioner. Nice!)

    I didn't know that about Ebert, Julie. I saw some nice, complimentary reviews of Moneyball, but none so extreme as to remotely suggest Best of Year status. But I guess I've just missed those.

  4. I didn't see anybody say Best of the Year, either, JAC. (As in, the ONE best of the year.) Just lots of nominations for awards and glowing reviews talking about Brad Pitt's stellar performance and how marvy the movie is. I would say "blah" and "blah" instead.

  5. I didn't mean ONE best of the year either. But giving it a Best Picture nom puts it at least in contention for that honor, and the voting procedure for nominations means that a certain number of Academy members made it their #1 choice.

    I doubt I'll bother to see it at all.