by Vadim Rizov

Michael Lewis is a veteran journalist who sticks almost exclusively to two topics: professional sports and business/economics. His 2003 book Moneyball details Oakland A?s general manager Billy Beane?s struggles to apply the latter to the former. Ignoring decades? worth of received wisdom about appraising baseball players, Beane swapped out the insights of crusty veterans for dispassionate number-crunching performed by nerds, trying to find new statistics and more reliable measurements for what to expect from a player. The success of Beane?s theoretical tinkering is questionable?the A?s have never won a championship since his management began in 1998?but his impact in getting people to think differently about team sports is undeniable, and the methods he championed still controversial enough to instantly set off fans who despise the very idea of stats-based team-building: the release of director Bennett Miller's Moneyball film triggered, among other things, a contemptuous sports column about Paul De Podesta, Beane?s assistant in Oakland, whose short-lived stint as GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers can still drive sports columnists to sputtering rage.

Moneyball There are a lot of contentious feelings and arguments attached to Moneyball?s ideas and arguments, none of which translate into the movie itself. Beane wasn?t coming out of nowhere; he was building on the work of (among others) Bill James, who argued that baseball statistics measured the wrong things and proposed some new formulas for determining a player?s worth. The book spends a considerable amount of time detailing both James? evolving thinking and the sputtering fury he provoked in baseball traditionalists. Some of the film?s best scenes pit Beane (Brad Pitt) against a room of real baseball scouts playing themselves; their collective, dry, repetitive insistence on ?fundamentals,? the importance of a hot girlfriend (an average-looking one indicates ?low self-confidence?) and other ?intangibles? is stopped dead by Beane?s insistence on relying solely on numbers and trying to stay emotionally detached. In business, this would make sense: for them, it?s irrational anathema.

Moneyball When it comes time to explain what Beane?s statistics actually are or how they work, the film clams up: aside from a speedy montage of players being told what (not) to do (don?t bunt, walk every time), the advice basically boils down to ?Don?t be the phenomenal all-round athlete you think you should be; be the single-purpose player we tell you to be.? That?s where the film leaves it: specifics are omitted, presumably not to alienate the baseball illiterate, which is a bad decision. With the most important and compelling parts of the book?the ones that flesh out Beane?s ideas to show concretely how and why his motley crew of unwanted players fulfilled their statistical destiny?barely sketched out, the movie needs another source of drama or conflict: if the visceral passion of baseball nerds isn?t a motivator, what is?

Moneyball Lewis' portrait of the oft-abrasive Beane is mostly retained, the idea that was receptive to new methods of evaluating players because he felt that the scouts who?d promised him a superstar future had let him down is bluntly restated by one of the real-life scouts. But the book?s point is that Beane?s struggle was meaningful as a stand on principle, rationality standing against counter-productive emotional attachment to the bad old ways, a stance admirable outside of the point: this isn?t good enough as an emotional factor, apparently, so Moneyball gives us something Lewis has no interest in?button-cute daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey), who worries her divorced dad will get fired and have to move to another city (?don?t read the internet,? he tells her). Pitt?s performance is often lively, which isn?t that hard when his character regularly gets to throw objects and upend tables to express feeling. As the film begins to conform to a typical rise-of-the-underdog arc, though, humor dies away.

Moneyball Considering the entire last third of the movie is about literal victory, it?s strange how little of the games are shown. Then again, maybe this is just to mirror Beane?s perspective, who ducks being on the field, opting instead to work out or drive around while occasionally switching on the radio to hear how the A?s are doing. The only other character of note is Jonah Hill?s amusingly fictionalized Peter Brand (clearly a stand-in for De Podesta), a big guy clearly uncomfortable being around the players and scouts responsible for the sport he loves more than anything, but he doesn?t get enough screen time. The players get one scene apiece, if that: a brief batting cage face-off with fading star David Justice (Stephen Bishop), ending with him agreeing to do like Beane asks and lead the younger players into embracing unorthodox play, is about as much dialogue time as any player gets.

Moneyball With the hard details of how Beane?s methods worked (or didn?t) eliminated and with no one else to watch for much of the running time, what we increasingly get is Brad Pitt staring balefully: sometimes while driving, sometimes in his office. Towards the end, with his head bowed during The Big Game, he looks like he?s praying in the world?s darkest church. Above ground, in slow motion, bat connects with ball: the deafening crack seemingly permeates down into the basement, with Beane?s head raised instantly. For a movie that goes out of its way to avoid coming off like a Field Of Dreams/The Natural-style sentimentalization of America?s (former) favorite pastime, it?s counter-productive to transform a struggle of principle into a vindication of one man struggling to retain his job, be a good father and so on; it?s the most solipsistic conquest imaginable. Beane argues for detachment and ignoring received wisdom onscreen, but?numerous spreadsheet montages aside?this turns out be as conservative a baseball film as any, a triumph of the underdog over nothing in particular.

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Posted by ahillis at September 22, 2011 9:08 AM

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