Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: "Moneyball"

For all of the baseball talk in Bennett Miller's Moneyball, which follows Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he tries to rewrite the rules of scouting, there is something universal about its protagonist's quest. Yes, this is a movie revolving around baseball, but don't confuse this for another The Blind Side or Remember the Titans. At its core, Moneyball is about a man's obsession with finding self-validation in a game he can no longer play. So even though there's a hardly a scene where baseball isn't involved (I counted...2...3?), Miller and co. have fashioned a steady, engaging film that benefits from a charismatic performance from its golden leading man.

The script, co-written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, gets things off to a slow start as it lays the groundwork. Billy Beane is determined to forgo the traditional method of scouting to build up his team, despite widespread antagonism from the rest of his coaching staff. After a chance encounter with analyst Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, pre-weight loss) at an opposing team's office, he discovers that the young man has a radical idea about how building teams should work. After moving Brand over to Oakland, Beane begins to, against considerable opposition, use Brand's method to try and make the team a success.

Once it gets past its opening stretch, filled with more dry baseball statistical talk than anything resembling character development, Miller's film starts to really gain its momentum. The more the film juxtaposes the team's journey with flashes of Billy's history in baseball, the richer it all becomes. Moneyball is not a sappy, inspirational sports story, but it does have any number sincere, rousing moments. Though there are title cards that occaisionally track the A's wins, the focus remains on the behind the scenes action, rather than needlessly protracted scenes of the team playing baseball to fill time. Whenever the film shows the A's in action, there's something to be found for Billy and Peter, whether it's a challenge, a success, or a failure.

And even though the sport of baseball may be a team effort, Moneyball comes down to the efforts of one man (at least, on screen): Mr. Pitt. Though not up there with say, his work in The Assassination of Jesse James..., Moneyball provides Pitt with an opportunity to turn in a more traditional 'star' performance, and it's a task he handles with aplomb. Barring a few quick, charming scenes with Beane's daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), just about everything here revolves around his involvement with the team. It's a connection, though, that comes through and connects, which is a good thing because really no one else here, even Hill's Brand, registers much as a character.

If anything, that's the one thing keeping the film from true greatness, for all of its strong moments. Sports tend to ignite a passion in people, and even though there are scenes of elation in Moneyball, the film is so thoroughly centered on Beane that one can only get so connected to images of the team celebrating. Beane's devotion to baseball and the A's is apparent, yet when the final title cards roll across the screen, they feel more perfunctory than moving. The schmaltz has been left behind, thankfully, but at the same time, the film seems to have missed its chance to be more human, and therefore make a greater impact.

Grade: B

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