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Moneyball

Baseball: not a game of which I understand the small print. I’m familiar with the terminology, particularly following Chad Harbach’s elegant and enjoyable ‘The Art of Fielding’, so I wasn’t totally oblivious during Moneyball upon hearing swift reference to ‘bunts’, ‘outs’ and ‘pinch-hitting’. But I’m not entirely sure about what these mean with regard to a game.

This isn’t too much of an issue, thankfully. Moneyball is a film partly concerned with minutiae, but not to the extent that it occludes the unbeknownst. It’s about squeezing the stats until several cheap, journeymen players pop out: unfashionable, awkward guys with peculiar pitching techniques, players that have underperformed or been misused, or that are mercurial or difficult – but may, were they marshalled auspiciously, ‘get to base’ and cumulatively get results.

Brad Pitt is the improbable Oakland ‘A’s ‘general manager’, Billy Beane, who, as flashbacks illustrate, was once a much-touted starlet, eventually signing for the New York Yankees and dropping any ideas of college. We see his younger manifestation choke and mis-hit time and again for a diminishing succession of clubs, the Yankees dream long over, and his luck eventually gives out. Having made a huge life decision ‘based on money’, his ill-fated memories serve as a cautionary provocation towards ‘integrity’, and his latter career on the sidelines is at a pivotal point: his owner has no money, he hasn’t yet made a name for himself and he’s backed into a corner once his best player (followed in short order by two other high-profile stars) is enticed elsewhere by the chance of success (and a big pile of green).

So, we’re privy to curmudgeonly, rankled meetings amongst Pitt and his ‘old-guard’ coaching and scouting staff, some pushing eighty by the looks. They’re not inclined to innovation, of course, and are looking to directly replace the departing talisman and make the best of it. Pitt knows the ace that’s jumped ship can’t (and shouldn’t) be replaced, and the overhaul he clearly has in mind is set in erstwhile motion once a chance meeting with Jonah Hill happens: thereafter Hill is taken on as an ‘advisor’: he will utilise his economic nous to formulate a ‘sybermetric’ mathematical system that pinpoints the aforementioned marginal, affordable players that are in career slide.

Pitt, after much disagreement with his intransigent backroom boys, takes the plunge and drafts in his mooted ragbag assortment of underachievers. Head coach (I think that’s his working title) Philip Seymour Hoffman, very much a Rod Steigerish figure, gum-chewing dyspeptic, mumbling intent and mocking mirthlessness (and contract gripes), is a bit of an obstacle that holds considerable sway (and happily takes credit for Pitt’s eventually fruitful gambit) but even he’s eventually sidelined as the ideology reaps considerable success.

Pitt does a decent job of subduing the elements that might dampen this characterisation, but is still just a little too boyish, innocuous, for the suspension of disbelief necessary. The story and the execution are such that it doesn’t hamper Moneyball too much; that aside, he doesn’t pass muster as a motivator of myriad complex, insecure charges. He’s likable but he’s not particularly well-suited to the rousing demands here: not even as much as, say, Sam Rockwell or Matt Damon would be. (I’d’ve gone for Billy Crudup: probably not a big enough name.) Jonah Hill offers an impressive tranquil-but-nervy geek, enthusiastic but initially at sea, and Seymour Hoffman is effortlessly spot-on in a relatively minor role.

Bennet Miller, who did a very decent job of bringing Capote to life (again with Seymour Hoffman), doesn’t mire you in a stat tsunami, nor play too closely to the baseball-geek crowd. He keeps things going at a clean, unclogged clip and plays to the universal elements of a game, the intrinsics of which are perhaps beyond non-US audiences. The context and the traditional sweep of the film fills in or renders unimportant any troublesome terminology, in any case, and the gist is clear: this is Have Nots v Haves in a time of acute recession and hardship: you get your trad nerve-jangler, moment of truth and precipice-plummet-or-triumph scenes, with more than enough charm, wit and verisimilitude to squeak into the playoffs.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. January 26, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    Great review, as per: although I must admit that I’ve not been especially intrigued by this film: I think the combination of a sports movie (urch) as underdogs’ tale (uuurrrrch) with Brad Pitt (URRRCH!!) irks me a little. Jonah Hill also seems to be very much the flavour of the month – and I’m not yet convinced. Plus, as I’m sure you’ve seen, Moneyball’s been much-nominated for the Oscars, which I’m going to boycott in light of their non-nomination of Kirsten Dunst (take that, Hollywood!) – by the way, I’m kinda suspicious that it (her non-nomination) has more to do with with Lars Von Trier’s horrific Nazi-sympathizer outburst than with the relative merits of the film – (would it be tactless/offensive of me to suggest that Jewish lobby groups hold some significant sway in Hollywood? perhaps, maybe? I dunno – not sure about that one: further research needed).

    You write very well. Am duly envious.
    Tomcat.

  2. January 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Tom: what a lovely thing to say! Much appreciated. At the risk of my response getting a little too ‘Hollywood’, I can only offer the same observation in reverse. I did notice a while back your mentioning of having ‘no discernible talent’ or some such. It’s just not true, as plenty could attest. You’re a very talented writer. Don’t be too envious, blimey: send your stuff around. You’ve got one of the best blogs out there. Your raw writing skill is excellent: you must know this…

    Jonah Hill: he does dial it down here, and he makes the role his. But I understand your reservations.

    Pitt’s pretty good: he won’t irk you unduly here.

    I think you’re right about Von Trier. Melancholia was, for example, fifty times the film Moneyball is, and that’s surely obvious to The Academy. It’s a stinking omission, but it’s par for the course and so on. And I absolutely concur on Dunst. Shamefully overlooked.

  3. January 26, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    Blimey, Tom, the above sounds a bit patronising somehow. Anyway, it was meant as a compliment…

    • January 27, 2012 at 12:32 am

      Many thanks – and I didn’t think you were being patronising at all, don’t worry. I’m not especially confident with my writing (hence my post rate of about one review every 3 months – must work on that) and uploading my reviews scares the bejeezes outta me. I’ve had a few… less than favourable reactions to my blog, and you know how it is: one negative/critical/derogatory comment stands out more than a hundred kind ones. Then there’s the usual attack that certain types of people like to level at writing that tries to be more academic/engaging: that I’m being ‘pretentious’ or pompous or psuedo (or whatever) sorry.. rant rant rant.

      Anyway, in short: your blog is awesome, and I wish I understood and could read and language of film the way you obviously do. Right… we should probably stop this before we descend into some utterly cringe worthy and saccharine mutual-appreciation exchange…

      I did love Melancholia: I was very moved/impressed by Dunst’s portrayal of the anhedonia of depression, when so often Hollywood likes to stereotype depression as either i) outright hysteria and histrionic displays of tears/screaming/garment rending, or ii) artistic types locking themselves away and producing thousands of paintings in just a few weeks etc. As if the standard manifestation of depression is the awakening/shamanic channelling of some kind of unearthly creative force. Dunst’s character (can’t remember the name) is just so numb; alternately incredibly childish (eating jam with her fingers from the jar) and mature in a way that exposes the impulsive vagaries of her kind of chronic depression but without resorting to more obvious/hysterical ways of showing it on screen. Kirsten Dunst has also gotta be praised for producing what is, let’s face it, one of the least sexual but most emotionally loaded nude scenes ever.

      Sheesh, the more I type the angrier I get that she wasn’t nominated. I know the Oscars aren’t the bastion of the highest of high culture when it comes to cinema – but lots of people seem to think they are, and her nomination could only have been a force for good in promoting more avant garde cinema. I think.

      I’ll stop typing now.
      Tom.

  4. January 27, 2012 at 12:34 am

    * that second paragraph was meant to say *the* language of film…
    sorry.

  5. January 27, 2012 at 9:40 am

    Thanks again, Tom. I wouldn’t pay any attention to the naysayers: you can write, end of. If people are taking issue with you looking at things academically or at a level of thoughtful complexity, sod ‘em. Those writing or talking about things with no interest in anything beyond the surface are not worth worrying about – there are millions of them. That’s not to say that everyone need be interested in detail: but to question you in that way, I’d forget about it. Better to keep doing what you’re doing, trying things, looking at things with serious intent and scrutiny. I always find your lines of enquiry and writing style interesting and other fine practitioners of the blogging art such as Max Cairnduff seem to share my opinion. Or, to quote Dennis Hopper: Fuck ‘em.

    Though I would write more often. It can only help. You shouldn’t lack confidence there, just write. It will be interesting, trust me.

    Yeah, I share your thoughts on Melancholia, totally. Dunst is incredible in it; I’ve got to be honest and say I didn’t see her being quite that impressive. It’s just so bang on: the kind of intense, invidious pervasion she lends to every scene. You cannot, I suggest, act some of what’s up there. The delusive faux-ebullience of the opening half, where she’s playing to the occasion and the futile fantasy: it’s the kind of game every bipolar depressive plays. Everything, real or not, is wonderful. Everything, real or not, is cataclysmic. And so on. So her fraudulent commitment to this guy and the strictures of impossible matrimony is eventually eroded by the slip into her downswing, which is singposted by her spot of bunker sex (as though she’s grabbing at something whilst being sucked under, playing a role that no longer understands chronology or behaviour but is programmed to go through certain movements): beyond which point, after her crash, she is eventually in a perfect state with which to deal with the world (and the upcoming collision, which I take it to represent normality, incorrectly or no), cleansed of her abortive submission to expectation and humdrum rites.

    It’s an important, important film. The concise cleverness of it. You know, the ‘I think your glass of wine…’ speech. It’s a film that desperately needs to be out there, and thankfully is. Awards: no chance. How many of the Academy were going to enjoy something that kicks the hell out of so many things they’re helplessly invested in?

    Anyway, cheers Tom, and get it down to once a month at least! Don’t forget, just because you’ve posted it up doesn’t mean you can’t go back and touch it up here and there (not that you’d need to, but knowing that should surely help…)…

  6. leroyhunter
    February 7, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    I really liked this as well Lee, coming into it with fairly low expectations (how could they adapt such a wide-ranging and discursive book about….economics?) but with a fairly sound knowledge of baseball nuts & bolts, having followed the game for a decade or so. So the thing that really struck me was the intelligence of the adaptation, as well as how darn beautiful Miller’s movie is in places.

    Top performances: I don’t have a problem with Pitt (in this or in general) and I’d never seen Jonah Hill before. Hofmann and the old-time coaches are a treat. I think it’s an outsider at Oscar time but I wish them well.

    • February 15, 2012 at 3:44 pm

      I did enjoy this quite a lot and I’m not sure I convey that adequately! It’s great fun, Moneyball, and it shouldn’t be quite as much fun as it is. I’d happily watch it again. I forgot to mention Arliss Howard and how good he is in a cameo…

  7. March 13, 2012 at 11:38 am

    It sounds fun, but one I might catch on tv rather than seek out. It’s a classic underdog story arc (as Tomcat mentions) , isn’t it? The archetypal sports movie approach. It can be done well, and here it seems it was, but it’s deeply unoriginal.

    Deeply unoriginal, but a bit uplifting, that’s like a mission statement for an Oscars movie. I don’t think it will win, but I’m not surprised it’s under consideration.

    • March 13, 2012 at 8:47 pm

      It’s certainly not one to rush out for. There’s a dearth of sports films (and is there a particularly good one? At all?) and here’s a solid, engaging one. And The Oscars have been and gone, Max: it didn’t pick up anything (of note at least).

  8. March 16, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Obviously I’m aware I don’t pay much attention to the Oscars. I’m slightly surprised to learn though that I pay so little I’d forgotten they;d happened. They’re coming back to me now. It wasn’t the most inspiring year as I recall.

    • March 30, 2012 at 11:36 am

      They are increasingly irrelevant; you missed nothing.

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