Friday, September 23, 2011


Bennett Miller's "Moneyball" ushers us into the fall movie season. It's time to get serious, to tell stories rich with drama and meaning and resonance. Or at least to get Brad Pitt an Oscar nomination - that's a good thing, right? It'll have to be, because "Moneyball" is thin, forgettable and dramatically inert.

"Moneyball" is about Billy Beane (Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland A's in the early 2000s. At the beginning of the picture, Beane asks his owner for more money to spend on players - not Yankees or Red Sox money, just ten or twenty million more. He spends the rest of the picture trying to win on the cheap, and at the end of the movie spurns an offer to become the highest-paid GM in baseball, with the Red Sox, and to control a payroll commensurate with that status. Beane's motivations in going from just another GM who wants a bigger budget to a money-disdaining proponent of sabermetrics are never explained in a way that makes sense. In fact, you wouldn't know from "Moneyball" whether Beane could even coherently explain sabermetrics.

For that, he has Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an assistant whom he hires away from the Cleveland Indians because Brand - a psuedonymized version of the ex-Dodger GM Paul DePodesta - appears to have veto power over their player personnel moves. Beane wants to know what Brand's computers are spinning out and how that information can help him compete with the big boys on one-third their money.

Brad Pitt has become of one our most valuable actors - really - and this is a breakthrough performance for him (his inevitable Oscar nom will be deserved). For the first time, he's not afraid to look - dare I say it? - older (there are moments when his resemblance to Robert Redford goes from striking to uncanny), and some viewers will find substance in that that isn't really there. I've also liked Jonah Hill in a number of movies, and he and Pitt have some wonderfully sweet and funny moments together here. They're not the problem. The problem is that their characters lack definition. They have no backstories - Brand in particular we know nothing about - and we are given no window into their feelings (none of the endless scenes of Pitt staring wistfully into the distance - including the last one - or throwing chairs at walls helps us get inside him).

But it's not just the two central characters that lack structure and contour. To put it bluntly, the movie has no narrative arc. What happens in "Moneyball"? Well, the 2002 A's win some games - 20 in a row at one point - and lose, as they had the year before, in game 5 of the ALDS. Along the way, the movie indulges in the usual catalogue of sports-movie tropes (the Big Game, the slow motion in crunch time, the last-minute heroics), but also in a fairly fast-and-loose game of hide-the-ball with its people and its storyline. At one point, Beane professes a policy of abstaining from "mingling" or other interactions with the players; at another, he slams into the locker room to deliver a postgame harangue. Then, after the 20-game win streak, we're plopped down unceremoniously in the ALDS, where we're told the A's are one game from winning. We're not told they're also one game from losing, but suddenly there are the Twins pouring out of the dugout and heading on to the LCS. The movie jumps around in a way that feels arbitrary and capricious, and ends up not going anywhere in particular.

Here are five questions that a better version of this film would have answered in a way audiences could understand: 1.) What is sabermetrics; that is, what statistics does it prioritize, and how are they determined and calculated? 2.) Who is Billy Beane's wife, why did their marriage break up, and what effect did it have on him emotionally? 3.) Who the hell is Peter Brand, where did he come from, and what does he care about? Like? Dislike? 4.) How can you say the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series using Beane's approach when they had a budget in excess of $120 million? 5.) Did the 2002 A's win the AL West or get into the playoffs via the wild card? (The entire last third of the season is absent.)

Is baseball boring? Well, as someone who likes it enough to attend half a dozen games a year, yeah, you could cut out three innings and not lose much. Is "Moneyball" boring? Let's just say there are long stretches where nothing happens, broken up intermittently by great moments between Pitt and Hill that tend to make us forget how empty the movie actually is. Philip Seymour Hoffman - Best Actor in Miller's "Capote" several years back - has precious little to do as the A's manager Art Howe, and by the end we really have no idea whether Howe's any good. This is emblematic. "Moneyball" is a well-acted, good-looking sketch drawing of a good movie - and that, unfortunately, makes it a bad movie.

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