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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Moneyball Is Money

Brad Pitt has had quite an interesting career. Besides being one-half of Brangelina, he's played vampires, jocks, con men...even a figment of Edward Norton's imagination. For years, he was typecast as sort of a friendly stud because of his masculine beauty—Thelma and Louise (1991) is probably the penultimate example. And regardless of the character he played, as David Denby pointed out in the New Yorker, his eyes were empty. He wasn't able to convey the thought process.

But time has been kind to Pitt. Age has mellowed his looks, and somewhere along the line he began to catch fire. Maybe Inarritu's Babel (2006) was the first film in which I noticed him really getting in touch with his emotions. As a man struggling to save his severely wounded wife, he showed a depth he hadn't exhibited before. And he'd matured enough to really make the outrageous concept of David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) work.

In Bennett Miller's wonderful new film Moneyball, we get the Pitt performance we've been waiting for—nuanced, charismatic and resonant. I'd read Denby's review before seeing the film, so the first thing I looked for were his eyes—and indeed they've got life in 'em! He plays Billy Beane, the (real) general manager of the down-at-their-heels Oakland Athletics. Frustrated at the loss of his star players to higher-paying teams, he starts to look around for up-and-comers he can get cheap. His aged scouts are no help; they seem more concerned about the potential replacements' good looks and girlfriends than their onfield talent.

When he goes to Cleveland to try to trade players with the GM of the Indians, he is outraged when the man keeps deferring to a chubby young guy, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whose whose every word he seems to take as scripture.

After the meeting, he hunts Peter down to ask him who he is and why his boss takes him so seriously. Peter, a Yale graduate in economics, explains that he's designed a statistical way to rate players and their winning potential, and the trades Billy wanted were just too valuable. The game. he explains, is simply about runs, so anyone who's guaranteed to make it to base is a big deal. Billy thinks about it for a while, and instead of trying to buy players, he decides to buy Peter.

Peter arrives in Oakland and begins putting together lists of players that could bring real talent to the club at a bargain price. Having lost Jason Giambi, Billy gets his hard-partying brother, Jeremy (Nick Porrazzo). Another player, Scott Hetteberg (Chris Pratt), who has been considered a lost cause as a catcher due to nerve damage in his hand, is retrained to play first base.

The team's manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) seethes at his perceived loss of control and refuses to put the new players into the positions Billy recommends, and the first few games are a disaster. Billy solves the problem by trading off Art's favorites, leaving him no choice but to put Billy's guys into position. As a result, they begin to win...and win.

Moneyball is an underdog story, but with a refreshing twist. Although it doesn't have a tragic ending, it's not one of those over-the-top exhilarating "feel good" movies like Field of Dreams. Pitt's Billy is a very real person. He's prone to attacks of extreme anger (this movie has to hold the record for desks being turned over) and his tension is expressed through an oral fixation. When he's not chewing tobacco, he's eating junk food. As a matter of fact, he's eating something in almost every scene.

What can I say about Pitt? He inhabits Billy's character with maturity and truly wonderful gravitas. He's gonna get an Oscar nomination, folks—but will he go all the way? Hill is a surprisingly excellent match for him as a tight-assed nerd who gets caught up in all the thrills. Hoffman, who is always good, is enjoyable as the burned-out manager who is angrily indifferent until the team starts to win, and then he becomes visibly quickened with excitement.

There are a lot of unfamiliar faces in Moneyball, as there were in Miller's earlier, marvelous Capote (with Hoffman as the elfin author). This adds a documentary feel to the film without disrupting its dramatic flow.

Reed Mitchell, whose second film this is, plays the young Billy in truly touching flashbacks showing how he turned down a scholarship to Stanford to join the MLB at age 19, and failed...giving us a reason to understand his violent outbursts. Robin Wright is effective as Billy's ex-wife, who is clearly still in love with him, but probably divorced him because of said outbursts. Particularly notable is 13-year-old Kerris Dorsey as his daughter, Casey, who really knocks it out of the park in her few scenes.

What's most remarkable about Moneyball is that it's based on Michael Lewis' nonfiction book, covering a topic that could be unbearably boring—statistics—yet it's alive and real, and there are a lot of laughs.

Some reviewers have said that you don't need to be passionate about baseball to love the film. Well, that may be true, but it certainly helps. If you get choked up when you see an establishing shot of Fenway; if you keep your favorite team's last game on your DVR to watch again later (as I did with the Dodgers); then you're the film's target audience. As Billy says more than once, "It's not hard to romanticize baseball." And indeed it isn't.

When I went to Fenway in 2006, my childhood crush, Susie Cowsill, was there to sing the national anthem. Now how's that for romanticizing the game?

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