Do you get your Moneyball’s worth?

Rating: Three stars out of four.

Since its release back in 2004, Moneyball has meant a lot of different things to different people. To some, it meant rejecting the old ways of viewing America’s pastime in favor of a relatively new perspective, rejecting battering average and embracing nu-baseball through the lens of on-base percentage.

For others, it embodied something more meta—the economic concepts of market inefficiencies and arbitrage in action. To them, on base percentage was not the be-all-end-all; it was merely the market inefficiency of the day.

And for others still, Moneyball represented something arrogant and distressing. Some disliked the book because it painted scouts and managers in a pejorative light that oversimplified the rigors of the jobs, casting them as pawns and roadblocks.

Others disliked it—some without having ever read it (Joe Morgan)—because the book and the mainstream popularization of sabermetrics were more than a rude awakening to them. It was outsiders telling them they were fundamentally wrong in how they have perceived the game for over 100 years. John Henry’s character in the Moneyball movie phrased this perspective well: “In their minds, this is threatening the game. It’s threatening the way that they do things.” No one likes becoming obsolete and expendable.

Moneyball, given the polarizing source material and following, could understandably have gone in many different possible directions. At one point in the development process, it was rumored to be something as drastic as a quasi-documentary about Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland Athletics narrated by Bill James’ talking head. What it ended up being, however, was an oversimplification of an oversimplification, and as a result, it is incongruous.

To be sure, Moneyball is a good film, but it is a bad baseball movie. More importantly, it lacks the soul of the novel. Moreover, it is a terrible piece of quasi-non-fiction.

The motion picture needs to be analyzed in three different lights—as a film, as an adaptation, and as a piece of non-fiction. It only works in one of these three veins.

As a piece of non-fiction, Moneyball took entirely too many liberties. In this regard, I think Keith Law’s review is very fair. While you can ignore the simplification of three-way trades, anachronistic nicknames, and, to some degree, the appearance of number-crunching technology that was in fact a few years away from creation, it is hard to ignore the fact that Billy Beane did not walk into his clubhouse one day with a college graduate and say “we’re going to blindly listen to this guy and his sabermetrics.”

Rather, Beane’s use of sabermetrics goes back to his days as an Assistant General Manager under Sandy Alderson, who turned him on to the numbers side of the game. Beane’s relationship with, and influence from, Alderson are entirely absent in the film, however. As a result, Beane’s motivation to use sabermetrics over scouting is left a mystery beyond creative necessity, when, in fact, it was something that was behind the scenes of the A’s 2000 and 2001 playoff runs as well.

As Keith Law points out in his review, Moneyball the movie takes the book’s pejorative perspective on managers and scouts to an extreme that is guaranteed to polarize audiences and further anger those who already took offense to the book’s portrayal of “old baseball.” The movie portrays scouts as entirely useless, arcane fixtures who are one-dimensional in thinking, and managers as being egotistical roadblocks to the process of sample-sized success.

Let me go on record and point out that I do believe scouting and management are important aspects of baseball. Scouts identify the viable mechanics of prospects and interpret other important things not present in Excel sheets. Managers, likewise, have some effect, albeit thus far an unquantifiable one, on the mental aspect of a game played by people rather than machines.

Some of the back-and-forth Beane has with his scouts is funny, but the film’s portrayal of these two elements of the game as disposable is intellectually disingenuous and misleading, and it only takes an already controversial viewpoint to an illogical extreme. Art Howe, in particular, should take offense at his portray in the film as someone more obsessed with his own ego and one-year contract than with helping his team win games.

As an adaptation of a book, the movie also fails. While the source material does not necessarily lend itself to a cohesive narrative without taking some liberties, some of the book’s most interesting elements were noticeably absent from the film. Some of these features include the 2002 draft, the tale of Chad Bradford, and the history of Bill James’ influence.

Moneyball is a great work of literature because it weaves the history of an emerging perspective through a single season of baseball and the man behind the team’s construction. While taking that approach to a film would result in a disjointing picture with little commercial appeal, it would have been nice to see some of the book’s better elements woven into the plot in some capacity, particularly the draft.

As a piece of cinema, though, Moneyball works fairly well. It is one of the better movies involving baseball that I have seen, and it is one of the better movies in a shallow pool of quality so far in 2011.

Director Bennett Miller, in Capote-like form, executes the film in a cinema verite style that captures an alluring sense of realism that often loses the viewer in the fiction. I say often, rather than totally, because the rather loose editing of the film often serves as a distraction to an otherwise engaging execution. Its enduring shots certainly help nurture the viewer’s insight and association into Brad Pitt’s character to some degree, but too often too many scenes linger too long.

As a result, it is difficult to get truly lost in the film’s expose, resulting in a disappointing conscious awareness that you are watching a film, rather than a suspension of exhibitionism, during the film’s duration. Though Moneyball is only 126 minute long, it feels noticeably longer. The film probably could have been cut by 10 to 20 minutes and made more effective and engaging in the process.

Brad Pitt’s performance as Billy Beane is the movie’s high point. Pitt brilliantly portrays Beane as a subtly haunted character putting on a front for everybody. On the surface, he is a cool, calm collected General Manager who can spin coal into diamonds. To them, Beane is not in it for the money; he’s in it for the challenge. He does not need to watch the games because he believes in his process.

In reality, however, Beane—at least as the film portrays him—is incredibly insecure. He does not attend games not simply because he believes in his process, but also—and perhaps primarily—because he cannot bear to confront the frustrating specter of failure.

It is true that Beane is not in the game for the money, but there is a lingering sense that Beane is only in it to prove something to himself—that he belongs in the game—and overcome his past demons as a failed five-tool prospect who never went to college. Every loss his team endures, especially those in the postseason, pain him much more deeply that the anger that he lets others observe him vent in frustration (e.g., by throwing chairs out of his office).

Beane never shows this side of himself to anyone, not even his daughter, until one very honest moment at the end of the film where he and Peter Brand, Paul DePodesta’s antithetical film replacement, share a moment about the philosophies and reality of losing, and whether or not Beane should take the job as the Red Sox new General Manager. Pitt truly deserves an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal.

Beyond Pitt’s performance, however, most of the rest of the cast is some combination of two-dimensional, underutilized or seemingly unnecessary. Jonah Hill, a generally charismatic and quirky comedy actor, plays a serious role as Peter Brand—who could not be any more unlike the Paul DePodesta-based character he portrays—with a depressingly wallflower abandon.

Brand, a first-job Yale graduate who drives the Moneyball movement of the 2002 A’s organization in the movie, is understandably a fish out of water at odds with the “old way” of doing things in baseball, but Hill too statically anchors his character’s performance in his initial motivation, and as a result the timid routine gets mundane.

Beane’s efforts to develop Brand as a front office personality throughout the film seem lost and wasted on the character. Also, Hill does nothing to dispel the misconception of what baseball numbers guys look like, which is something that personally irked me. In this regard, Hill was more a caricature than a character.

Kerris Dorsey does a good job portraying Beane’s daughter, Casey, but her subplot came off as entirely unnecessary and forced. It seemed entirely contrived that the movie would put any focus on Beane as “playing to keep his job” in 2002 after bringing the A’s to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons on a shoestring budget. Had Beane been fired, there is no doubt he would have been scooped up by another organization in a heartbeat.

I am also not sure why his daughter, who aspires to make music, needed to sing a song that sounded an awful lot like the Moldy Peaches’ tune from Juno.

I also would have liked to see more of Stephen Bishop (David Justice) and Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg)—who seemed tossed in as an oft-referenced afterthought rather than a centerpiece of the 2002 A’s squad—but each served his purpose well.

Philip Seymour Hoffman probably issued the best supporting performance of the cast, though his portrayal of Art Howe should anger Art Howe. Whereas the book set up Howe as somewhat of a puppet of Beane’s, the film portrayed him as an arrogant, self-obsessed roadblock that stood between Beane’s preseason plan and its success. It made for an interesting dynamic and plot point for the film, but I wonder if Howe was aware of how he was being portrayed.

One of the film’s strongest, though subtlest, features was its complementary cinematography. Moneyball‘s camera work was orchestrated by Wally Pfister, who you may know as the cinematography architect behind Christopher Nolan’s visually dazzling body of work.

Though Moneyball is not as in-your-face stylized as The Dark Knight, it is loaded with gorgeous establishing shots and artful closeups of Beane driving around Oakland that capture a detached sense of intimacy, insecurity, and overwhelmingness that supplement the film’s themes well.

The script, on the other hand, though written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List), is by far the film’s weakest attribute. Instead of bringing to light some of the book’s more interesting elements, such as the 2002 draft, the film focused primarily on the problems of constructing the 2002 A’s and their failures in the early season.

Rather than romanticize the A’s ascent to the top of the AL West, only to see disappointment in the end—an anti-climatic approach that I strongly feel would have worked better and complemented Beane’s frustrated character well—the film bookends the A’s rise and 20-game win streak with their early and postseason failures, focusing primarily on the 2002 A’s preseason problems, early-season failures and postseason ineptitude.

In effect, the film portrays the 2002 A’s as pushing a boulder up a mountain rather than exploiting market inefficiencies, and in this regard it loses a lot of the soul of the book. The 2002 A’s were fighting an uphill battle in some sense, using theory in place of conventional wisdom, but the challenge for Beane was more in how to build a successful team, not its ultimate execution.

Additionally, much of the film’s baseball dialogue felt forcibly loaded with sabermetric buzzwords. The dialogue itself is well-written—it is not as though George Lucas wrote the script—but when the characters were talking sabermetrics, it felt as though they were obligated to drop token phrases. Sabermetrics is not as one-minded as shown in the scene where Billy Beane kept trashing scouts’ opinions only to repeat the word “on base.”

Most of the scenes that did not involve baseball jargon, however, were pretty brilliant. The best example of the film’s quality of dialog writing, and my favorite scene in the whole movie, is when Billy Beane meets with John Henry to discuss the possibility of becoming the Red Sox’s new general manager following the 2002 postseason.

The conversation between Beane and Henry is strong evidence that if Sorkin and Zaillian had a better grasp on how to incorporate baseball talk into the script, the film could have been something great. But they didn’t, and it’s not.

As a movie, as my star rating above indicates, I would recommend Moneyball, but I would not give it a glowing recommendation. Though certainly worth viewing, the film has plenty of flaws: It is not commercially adapted for wide appeal, it does not adapt the book in a fashion that fans of the literature will feel particularly satisfied with, and the movie drags on at times.

Moneyball is more than a rental, but it is certainly nothing to rush out and see, or drop $10 to watch after your theater’s matinee time. Like David Eckstein, the film certainly tries hard to achieve, but it ultimately falls short of being anything other than above-average—especially in light of the source material.

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Comments

  1. Mike Fast said...

    You have a lot of good points, Jeffrey, but I came away enjoying the movie much more than you seem to have, and I felt it had a lot more strength than you seem to think it did.

    I completely agree that it failed as a piece of non-fiction, which of course it wasn’t made to be.  But I would lump your complaints about how it portrayed sabermetrics under that same heading, with the complaints about how it portrayed scouting and old-school managing.  I don’t understand why the creative license he took with sabermetrics is a failing of the film.  In fact, I thought it really helped make the film work by focusing the drama.

    I don’t know how one could make a film that was both sabermetrically sound and interesting to a broad audience.

  2. Mike Fast said...

    Btw, Jeffrey, I agree with your overall rating of the film as three stars out of four.  It just seemed like most of your review was spent talking about things you didn’t like about the film.

    I do agree that it had shortcomings, but it was far better than I had expected, though my expectations were not very high going in.  That might have something to do with it—reminds me of a Poznanski article on movies relative to expectations.

  3. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Mike,

    I think its true that perhaps I should have clumped some of my script problems into my feelings of the film as a piece of non-fiction, but I felt, knowing the source material and being involved “in the industry” to some degree, that I could not separate it in my personal viewing experience. It was just another element that hindered my ability to get lost in the movie—that necessary suspension of reality.

    I think the volume of good reviews set my expectations too high, when I was initially skeptical of what they could accomplish with Moneyball. As I tried to highlight in my review, the source material does not lend itself well to a straight adaptation—and in this regard, the creators did what they could and what they did they did do well. However, it makes me wonder if the film would have been better suited in its niche form as a quasi-documentary rather than a piece quasi-fiction.

    Or maybe I just want to see a movie about sabermetrics, as boring as it probably would be, because I’m knee deep into re-reading this fascinating baseball book:
    http://www.amazon.com/Numbers-Game-Baseballs-Fascination-Statistics/dp/0312322232/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1317058291&sr=8-2

  4. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Perhaps I did not do a great job exposing my personal biases above, but I tried to evaluate the film in light of its technical merits, from my perspective as a former student filmmaker/film critic, and from a view of someone involved in “the numbers” the film underscored.

    The film is a pretty good one, and its best comparison is to Bennett Miller’s last film, Capote. If you liked that, you’ll like this. Both films are well made, have strong acting, but the pacing to each is pretty poor and its hard to get lost in both films. Each is worth seeing, neither spectacular.

  5. Allen Reed said...

    Disagree heartily with you asessment of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s role. Hoffman was totally miscast. He looked like someone who had never seen a baseball game in his life, and wouldn’t know a baseball if someone threw it at him. Have you ever seen anyone look more out of place in a baseball uniform. Worse even than Jonah Hill in a suit. I would of used Ed O’Neill, Bruce Willis, or Ed Harris as Howe, to name three.
        I don’t remember Howe as being particularly fat, and i think thee sight of the somewhat pudgy Hoffman in a baseball uniform led to the buffoon like impression the character makes.

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