Sunday 13 May 2012

Movie Review: Moneyball (2011)

Interesting, but not that interesting. The evolution of baseball into a sport that makes use of advanced player analytics, spearheaded by the 2002 Oakland Athletics, receives a marginally engaging but overblown treatment in Moneyball. The result is a sputtering, bloated film that sparkles intermittently but succeeds in largely suffocating its subject matter.

The Oakland Athletics have an unexpectedly successful 2001 season but fall short in the play-offs. General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is then helpless as all his star free agents are snapped up by higher profile, bigger-market teams that are able to offer large salaries. Convinced that the Athletics need to try a new approach to rebuild and remain competitive on a small budget, Beane recruits statistical whiz-kid Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) as his new Assistant. Brand's philosophy in recruiting players is to ignore all intangibles that make up baseball's rich folklore and focus purely on the most relevant player statistics to look for undervalued, cheap-to-sign players.

Against the wishes of his senior scouts and much to the disgust of team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Beane and Brand assemble a motley crew of overlooked, over-the-hill, and under-the-radar players. The 2002 season starts horribly, but eventually the Athletics gel and go on an impressive win streak to get back into contention for post-season play.

Based on the Michael Lewis book, this story did not require 133 minutes of screen time to be told. A good 25 to 35 minutes needed to be trimmed from Moneyball to keep the focus on the essentials. But Director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin are in love with their own work, and they layer on the padding to no great purpose. Attempts to round out Billy Beane by showcasing scenes with his daughter and adding flashbacks from his time as a fringe professional player clumsily get in the way of the core story, tripping up the main message.

And despite the long length, Moneyball loses its own narrative: were the 2002 Athletics ultimately better than than the 2001 team, in terms of on-field achievement? Halfway through the 2002 season Beane is shown instinctively ditching players recruited according to Brand's methods, and engaging in old school wheeling and dealing. The Athletics' season is subsequently transformed, throwing into doubt the efficacy of the premise.

And what was the lasting legacy of what Beane and Brand introduced? The closing screens inform us that the Boston Red Sox adopted the player assessment techniques introduced by Oakland and won the 2004 World Series, so is the conclusion that rich teams are now even stronger, combining wealth with a strong understanding of the statistical analysis needed to assemble a winning team? Are baseball's small market teams therefore any further ahead?

Brad Pitt delivers his usual magnetism, but goes through the movie looking for more meaning than the material offers. More interesting is Jonah Hill's Peter Brand, but he is given much less to do. Where the film would have benefited from some character depth and background, none is provided for Brand, clearly an interesting outsider to baseball's arcane culture.

Moneyball's best moments are the inside perspectives on the workings of the major league ball club, from the scout meetings to the dressing room shenanigans, and the sometimes hard conversations that need to be had between players, coaches and managers. The on-field scenes are handled well, with radio and television commentary used to good effect to describe the importance of the unfolding action.

In a case of ambition stretching the material too thin, a smaller and more compact treatment would have been so much more satisfying. Moneyball drives awkwardly for the fences, but settles for a stumbling double.

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