Monday, October 3, 2011

"Moneyball" is a Story of Faith

During the first half of the first decade of the 21st century, I watched a lot of baseball, mostly Yankees, mostly -- OK, practically all -- in bars, and once or twice at the old Yankee Stadium.  There was even a point when, after working late every night (at some point, of course, one must acknowledge that those are the hours, it’s no longer “working late” if you do it every day), I would walk into a bar where far too many people knew my name, and if the Yankees were losing, they’d turn it around and win.  If I went home and didn’t watch the game, the Yankees would lose.  Clearly the deciding factor was me-- if the Yankees lost, it was my fault.  Just ask my friend Dave.

Baseball can do that to you.  It’s a very superstitious game.  Ask Billy Beane.

The second post-season game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers crackled on my car radio Sunday, the Connecticut station’s signal straining to reach the south shore of Long Island.  When I arrived at my destination, I searched for the game on television.  I was on vacation, and I needed a walk along the shore I’d driven more than two hours to reach.  But it’s impossible to turn away, since the Yankees might do what they indeed did:  They galvanized, too late, in the 9th, so we believed we could win it. 

Here in the post-season, “Moneyball” tackles difficult questions about the game of baseball.  Is the way to pick your team to go one by one and find the best individuals out there, potential stars; or is it the time of the computer and math nerds who will use statistical analysis to pick a group of players who will function as a quirky sort of whole, without stars?  I am not an aficionado of baseball (or any other sport), so I’ll not pontificate on that subject.
(c) 2011 Sony Pictures
However, “Moneyball” is a movie, a sports movie, an end-of summer movie.  Like the game of baseball itself, the film moves along at a leisurely pace in its beginning — in 2001, the rich teams poach the stars from the poor Oakland Athletics (NY took Giambi, Boston Johnny Damon, St. Louis took Isringhausen) and we watch General Manager Billy Beane, a former player himself, try to rebuild a new team.  Like this hot-weather game, the film’s rhythms start off lazy, gradually warm, and move forward in the summer breeze, speeding up until the audience is ready to leap out of their seats, as if they were at a neck-and-neck play-off game.  Rather like the last inning of the Yankees/Detroit post-season game 2.

Brad Pitt eases into the role of Billy Beane, his fit body showing an athlete’s grace despite Billy’s 44 years -- that’s practically proof that his time as a professional athlete was limited.  He appears in no way crippled.  One of Billy's stops looking for new blood for his depleted team is Cleveland, where Reed Diamond plays some guy who mispronounces Shapiro (his name is pronounced with a long I unlike any Shapiro I've ever known).  Diamond is smug as the mean-spirited alpha guy in a roomful of mean-spirited man-boy sports types.  It looks rather like the Sopranos in pinstripes.  The roomful of aging jocks are as one in their deprecation of Billy, who handles it all with aplomb.

Jonah Hill as "Peter Brand"  (c) 2011 SonyPictures
The most important thing that happened in Cleveland was that Billy was smart enough to spot an anomaly, a young guy in his father’s suit that all those ex-jocks -- guys who would have pushed that math nerd fat boy's head into the toilet in high school -- actually listen to the young man’s whispered counsel.  This is Yale-educated economics geek Peter Brand, quietly played by Jonah Hill.  This is the subtlest performance I’ve seen Hill give, and I like it. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman is slow, pugnacious, and really obnoxious as Coach Art Howe, who ignores and belittles Billy’s plans for his odd new hires, until his hand is forced.  I assume Howe happily took the credit for the wins generated by Billy and Pete’s non-traditional, outlandish team-building plan.  Hoffman is brilliant as Howe without pulling focus from the story.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Coach Howe

Women don’t play much of a role in this world.  The traditional scouts judged a ball player not only on his own prowess and appearance, but on the prettiness of his wife.  If she’s merely average or less, they say, the player lacks confidence, so he’s in the discard pile.  I’m stating this politely, which they did not.

In terms of this story, Robin Wright is on the mark yet wasted as Sharon, Billy’s ex-wife; Kerry Dorsey is sweet as his daughter Casey, with an even sweeter singing voice and a 21st century style.  A female sports reporter is a total bitch when she’s in the enemy territory of the clubhouse -- the testosterone presumably nauseated her.  Yes, it’s a boys’ club.  Nevertheless, though Billy’s secretary has little to do, Takayo Fischer does it with the fullness of a life story behind her character.

Does anyone care about the rotten attitude toward women in this story, or do we just expect and accept this petrified belief system from jocks?  Does high school never end? 

Not that this antipathy toward the female of the species diverts from the story.  It sneaks up on you, “Moneyball” does, just like baseball.  I had the advantage of not remembering the 2001-2002 baseball season.  For me, the suspense and excitement of “Moneyball” built as the crew of guys without star power but rather oddball qualities, metamorphosed into the amazing team that won twenty games in a row.  Cheers of joy flutter through the NY audience at the magical possibilities of baseball.  Who could ask for more?  Billy Beane, that’s who, because he knows that, no matter how brilliant the season, if you lose the last game, the season is forgotten.

Luckily for baseball fans and moviegoers, Michael Lewis didn’t let that happen when he wrote his book, Moneyball:  The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin translated into a screenplay (based on a story idea by Stan Ghervin) for a very satisfying baseball film.  The underdog wins, at least for a while.  That’s baseball.  That’s America.  Creating a team of oddball castoff players, using math and computers and modern economic theories was an incredibly ballsy move — if you’ll forgive the pun — for Billy Beane and Peter Brand (that’s the character name, not the real guy’s name) that should keep them in the record books for a good long time.

Director Bennett Miller does a fine job, keeping even the leisurely parts of the story moving swiftly.  Attention never flags.  Pitt’s Billy Beane is cute and charming and passionate and superstitious and totally believable.  We are with him all the way as he drives this film, and Jonah Hill is a quiet but rock-solid co-pilot. 

Pitt and Hill

Stephen Bishop gives a standout performance as David Justice, an angry 30-something traded from the Yankees to the badlands of Oakland.  Chris Pratt does sensitive work as Scott Hatteburg, a young yet washed-up catcher Billy wants on first base.

Arliss Howard gives a quirky performance as John Henry, the new owner of the 2002 Boston Red Sox.  His is one of two particularly odd but utterly believable performances in this film — Howard as a part of baseball, and Spike Jonze as the rather effete current husband of Billy’s ex-wife, whose tentative kindness shows a complete lack of understanding of baseball, or any other sport. 

Moneyball” is a film that makes people applaud.  Baseball is still the great American pastime, and early autumn does not diminish our love for the boys of summer.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to go watch some kids play -- I hear the crack of a ball on a wooden bat…

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