Moneyball: Conventional Wisdom Isn’t!

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At one point in Moneyball, Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane says words to the effect that, unless you win the last game of the season, nobody cares. Today’s game says that’s one of the few times he got it wrong.

In 2001, the Oakland Athletics came got to the World Series, led by three players who would then be snapped up by other teams for more money than the A’s had allotted for their entire team’s payroll. In 2002, GM Billy Beane [Brad Pitt] had the unenviable task of trying to replace their output with miniscule budget. Moneyball is a film about that challenge.

Impressed by a quiet kid whom one GM seemed to respect – and fed up with the traditional BS spouted by his scouts – Beane hired the kid away from that team and began to put together a team based on his purely statistics-based theories. He also made Peter Brand [Jonah Hill] his assistant GM. Brand is a composite character created to make the film less unwieldy and the character works well, primarily because Hill turns out to have some decent dramatic chops.

One Beane has assembled his team – utilizing Brand’s theories and statistics – he has a problem getting the team’s manager, Art Howe [Philip Seymour Hoffman] to put it on the field. Howe, not swayed by Beane and Brand, continues to run the tea, according to conventional wisdom and they open the season with three straight losses.

To get his players on the field [there’s a catcher turned first baseman whose only real skill is that he gets on base, a lot], Beane engineers some trades, leaving with no alternative. When the team ties the major league record for consecutive wins – twenty – it’s Howe who gets all the credit.

To offset Beane’s very intense working persona, the film brings in glimpses of his family. Away from the game, he’s a lonely man who’s divorced – his ex-wife has remarried – and doesn’t get to spend as much time with his daughter [Kerris Dorsey] as he’d like.

There are also flashbacks to Beane’s youth, when he signed with the Mets right out of high school and went on to have a short and undistinguished career – that gives him the empathy to deal with making hard trades, and the wisdom to know when his scouts are full of crap. He’s heard it all from other side of the GM’s desk.

Point of clarification: Moneyball isn’t so much a baseball movie as it is about rattling the establishment with game-changing ideas. It’s about David taking on goliath and winning by being smarter; being willing to take the risks you know are right – no matter how daunting they might seem.

Although we get a certain amount of baseball footage – some of it pretty exciting – the real game is the one going on in the GM’s office as Beane works phones like Rick Wakeman works keyboards; and in the locker room as Beane and Howe have it out, or as Beane establishes with his players what ‘losing sounds like.’

Of the glimpses of his life away from the game, the most important are the time spent with his daughter, Casey. The two have a connection that he doesn’t have with anyone else – she can sing him a song about being a loser and make him laugh. Their few scenes together transform him – and Pitt makes us believe it.

The dialogue is what makes the business of baseball – and the introduction of Brand’s system – exciting. Pitt and Brand may be the odd couple of the year. Pitt and Hill have a physical Abbott & Costello/Laurel & Hardy physical presence together – that physical presence enhanced by Pitt playing Beane’s aggressiveness and Hill playing Brand’s shyness and unease.

Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian have taken a dry, statistics-based non-fiction book and turned it into an exciting and surprisingly visceral movie. Bennett Miller [Capote] uses sprightly camera work to keep Moneyball from being [mostly] a movie about talking heads, and cuts to the actual game of baseball for important moments that underline what Beane and Brand are trying to do versus the results you get from traditional wisdom.

I fully expect to see Brad Pitt among the nominations for the Oscar® for Best Actor – and wouldn’t actually be too surprised if Jonah Hill made the short list for Supporting Actor.

Moneyball is a surprisingly delightful movie with a slightly melancholy undercurrent [Hill’s theories and computer skills put together a better team than a horde of scouts with years of experience – that’s kinda melancholy]. Chances are you will enjoy it whether you love baseball or hate it.

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