Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Film Review: Moneyball (2011)

I feel I need to begin this review by admitting two things: that I don't understand baseball and I hate maths. So Moneyball, a film about highly complicated mathematical formulae and the impact they had on professional baseball that runs over two hours, should be my idea of Hell. If you break down the basic conmponents of the film, it should be the driest, dullest story in existence, and one that should have no audience, because there's nothing that hardcore math fans hate more than sports stepping all over their spreadsheets. Oh, and I guess the reverse is probably true for baseball fans.

Expecting Moneyball to merely be watchable was a pretty tall order, so that it actually winds up being a really interesting and entertaining movie is nothing short of miraculous. Then again, it was co-written by Aaron Sorkin (with Steven Zaillian), a man who has something of a knack for turning a dry subject matter into compelling drama. Continuing his development from a writer who uses his characters as mouthpieces to a writer who allows characters to speak through him, Moneyball finds Sorkin imbuing a great deal of humour and jovial warmth into a story that is so dependent on cold, hard numbers.

The film begins in late 2001, and Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is facing a professional crisis. As General Manager of the Oakland A's, he is coming off a bad season and has to find replacements for three of his best players, all of whom have been poached by teams who could offer more money. On top of this, Beane is having to compete against teams with four times the budget that he has, so he can't afford to buy players good enough to replace the ones that are leaving, and the ones being suggested by his cadre of scouts are the same uninspired choices he has heard time and again.

Yet Beane isn't the sort of person who can just throw in the towel, and he sets about going through the usual processes of getting players, even though he knows that the odds are heavily stacked against him for the coming year. On a visit to Cleveland to see if he can trade some players with the Indians, he has a chance meeting with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate with a degree in Economics who believes that everyone in baseball has been choosing players using the wrong criteria, and that the application of mathematical algorithms to the scouting process would allow for a team like the A's to field a World Series winning team purely through careful consideration of statistics, and without spending hundreds of millions of dollars they don't have on the sort of players Brand considers over-rated. Beane hires Brand, and the two set about applying the theory to a very real situation.

Moneyball thrives on its script, which is, in the best Sorkin tradition, zippy and witty, and its performances, which are subdued and comfortable, and both of which more than compensate for Bennett Miller's pedestrian direction. Not that Miller does a particularly bad job, but he lacks the dynamism to do justice to a fast, dense script that manages to impart a lot of complex information in a way which is accessible, or at the very least so sparing that the film doesn't get too bogged down in logistics. And Miller does manage to create some very good individual sequences, particularly when it comes to depicting some of the crucial games in the A's season, but as with Capote, the film succeeds in spite of his direction, rather than because of it.

At the centre of the film is a terrific relationship between Beane and Brand that Pitt and Hill play as an awkward, low-key buddy comedy that fits the story very well and delivers some of the biggest laughs (of which there are plenty since, despite everything, it is a really funny film). It's also in their scenes that the film finds most of its humanity, as Beane and Brand are the ones who have to decide who gets dropped from the team when the numbers require them to, and there are a number of genuinely affecting scenes in the film in which the clinical world of sabermetrics comes into contact with the messiness of human emotion as they have to tell players that they are being traded, or dropped entirely. Considering it spends most of its time showing the positive impact of this system on professional baseball (i.e. it helps a team like the A's win a whole lot of games), the decision to show the other half of the equation does give the film some welcome shading.

There's also a great supporting performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the manager of the A's who fundamentally disagrees with what Beane is doing and disobeys him at every turn. Hoffman's the closest thing the film has to a villain (unless you count "The Unfairness of the Game of Baseball," which is a touch abstract) but he plays Howe not as a bad guy, but as someone trying to do their job whilst their bosses mess around with statistics. Every scene between Hoffman and Pitt has a terrific energy because they both play their characters as men who know that they are right, and that sense of furious conviction on both sides is fun to watch and makes the moment when Beane finally out manoeuvres Howe particularly sweet.

Whilst it is focused on the power struggle between Beane and Brand on one hand and Howe on the other, Moneyball has a solid base upon which to hang everything else, but whenever its attention drifts it loses a lot of its energy. A subplot about Beane's relationship with his daughter (ably played by Kerris Dorsey), whilst sweet, is hugely distracting, and the few moments when Beane interacts with his revolving roster of players feel forced since none of them are really on screen long enough to be established as anything other than names or broad character types. Some, like Chris Pratt's Scott Hatteberg, get to become characters purely through being important to the feud between Beane and Howe - and because Pratt, as anyone who has seen him on Parks and Recreation will attest, is so naturally charismatic - but he is an exception, rather than the rule.

It's that lack of discipline at key moments that prevents Moneyball from being truly great, since a tighter focus and a less conventional approach to the material might have elevated it to that level. Then again, considering the subject matter, that it comes as close as it does is a romantic surprise on a par with the A's record-breaking streak.

Grade: B