Two Cranky Guys on ‘Moneyball’: Is It Worth the Hype?
Bruce Fretts: Brad Pitt knocked it out of the park with critics and audiences this weekend as the Oscar-heavy-hitter Moneyball opened to raves and the biggest first weekend in history for a baseball movie. The question is, Bret: Does this movie deserve to be such a hit?
Bret Watson: I’d say it’s a stand-up double, not a home run.
Bruce Fretts: Really? I thought it was a grand slam. OK, I’ll try to restrain myself from making any more baseball puns. Where do you think it came up short… stop? (No, seriously, stop me!)
Bret: Based on the eponymous Michael Lewis best-seller, Moneyball dramatizes the true story of how Billy Beane, as general manager of the hapless Oakland A’s, (supposedly) revolutionized the game by using statistics to find undervalued players. Sounds like a premise for great drama, doesn’t it? It takes some sleight of hand to turn that into satisfying drama. Oh, and Pitt is fine in a fairly one-note performance. He stews and glowers a lot.
Bruce: The unlikely premise is what I loved about it: It’s the anti-baseball movie. Not that it’s anti-baseball, but it flies in the face of romantic baseball movies like Field of Dreams, Pride of the Yankees and Bull Durham. Yet as Beane says, “It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball,” and you get caught up in the A’s ’02 season.
Bret: It gets romantic about an unromantic way of looking at the game. Not that I disagree with it: Before Beane ever met Oakland, I loved Bill James’ books of sabermetric baseball analysis. The movie name-checks him in passing.
Bruce: I’ve never been a bean-counter when it comes to baseball—I’m attracted to all the intangibles about the game that are beloved by the old-timers who resist Beane’s ways. Yet I couldn’t help rooting for Pitt and Jonah Hill, who’s terrifically deadpan as the Yale economics geek who becomes his one ally in the clubhouse.
Bret: Jonah Hill turns in the best performance I’ve seen from him.
Bruce: I’ve finally forgiven him for Cyrus. Were you not a Hill fan before this? I thought he was great in Superbad, but his appeal was wearing thin for me way before he did after filming Moneyball. I guess spending a couple of months staring at Brad Pitt is great motivation to lose weight.
Bret: This movie is the perfect baseball movie for our times: It’s about impoverished underdogs who try find a way to overcome the unfair advantage of rich teams in big markets. Beane compares himself to card counters in a casino, but the problem is that in the long run, the house always wins. The rich get richer. Certainly the Yankees do. Compare how often teams in wealthy markets get into the playoffs vs. teams in smaller markets, and you’ll realize baseball is almost as rigged as Wall Street.
Bruce: Yet it still manages to have a happy ending, of sorts, because of Pitt’s relationship with his teenage daughter, wonderfully played by Kerris Dorsey. As for Pitt, I think it’s his best performance, even better than in Tree of Life. It won’t win him an Oscar—there’s not enough emotional range to the character—but he’s not coasting on his looks, like he did in Oceans 11-13, or fighting against them, as he did in 12 Monkeys. And he’s not cartoonish like he was in Inglourious Basterds. He manages to combine movie-star glamour with a regular-guy appeal.
Bret: The subplot with his daughter is the weakest part of the movie, but it’s necessary for the movie to somehow pull a happy ending out of the fact that the A’s don’t go to the World Series.
Bruce: Oh, you just hate children.
Bret: Not if they’re cooked right. So there’s a weak subplot with frequent flashbacks to his past, as if he carries this long shadow of failure because his own baseball career didn’t pan out. Photos of Beane as a kid in his uniform are hammered into our eyes. But it all sets up what actually is a wonderful scene at the end, when Hill shows Pitt a video of a ballplayer who thinks he’s a loser while oblivious to his triumph. Metaphor alert! Beane, you aren’t a loser as long as you don’t think of yourself as one!
Bruce: I found the script to be nearly flawless. I thought Aaron Sorkin couldn’t take a less likely cinematic subject than Facebook and turn it into great drama, but he pulled it off—with help from Steven Zaillian, who also wrote a little movie called Schindler’s List. That’s an All-Star screenwriting team.
Bret: Mind you, I enjoyed the movie, but beneath its snazzy veneer of a gee-whiz new approach to the game is an old-fashioned hooray-for-the-underdogs movie. Its bones are made of hoary sports movie clichés. And maybe that’s fine, since it’s well done—although if I ever watch it again, I am going to fast-forward through the daughter’s singing scenes.
Bruce: I guess I’m just a bigger fan of old hoars than you are. I was impressed by how director Bennett Miller took such a specific subject and made it feel universal. That was where I felt he tripped up with his first film, Capote—Phillip Seymour Hoffman was great in it, but the movie felt tiny. PSH is also good in Moneyball as manager Art Howe, even though it was a little hard to believe any ex-Major Leaguer could ever let himself get that out of shape.
Bret: You’ve never seen a paunchy baseball manager? Tommy LaSorda, anyone?
Bruce: Yeah, but Art Howe stayed lean after he retired, even when he managed the Mets. And if there’s ever an excuse for stress eating, it’s managing the Mets.
Bret: The movie makes a big deal out of Beane’s conflict with Howe, then all of a sudden it vanishes. I suppose Howe got religion about playing people based on their on base percentage and not “intangibles.”
Bruce: Actually, Howe got fired, even though he won 103 games that season. The movie does skim over that fact—which, by the way, came from my 15-year-old son, Jed, a baseball-stats freak who liked the movie just as much as I did. By the way, did you like Capote better than Moneyball?
Bret: Since I saw both Truman Capote movies that came out at the same time, I can’t keep them straight…so to speak.
Bruce: Well, you must not have been very impressed then. I was surprised when it got nominated for Best Picture and Director, but I won’t be when Moneyball earns the same honors. I take it you won’t be cheering if it wins, though.
Bret: It’s a perfectly fine movie, it’s just not baseball’s Citizen Kane. Call it Citizen K?
Bruce: Just not Citizen K-Rod. Another heartbreaker for Mets fans.
Bret: So would you make this the best movie of 2011 so far? It has been a terrible year for movies, so the competition is weak.
Bruce: Yes, I’d say this is the best I’ve seen so far, but the fall Oscar season is just beginning. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Moneyball becomes the first baseball movie to win Best Picture. It’s about time the national pastime starts catching up to boxing in that category.
Bret: I’m cranky in part because this movie reminds me of why I soured on baseball. Whatever benefits Beane’s stat-counting once brought the A’s is now diluted by the fact that everyone knows about and plays the stats game now.
Bruce: I thought you soured on baseball after your break-up with A-Rod. Let it go.
Bret: Forget A-Rod—I need to focus on breaking up with Pretzel Rods.
Did Moneyball score with you? C’mon—step up to the plate! (Yes, Bruce wrote this—Bret hates baseball puns almost as much as he hates children.)
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