Reviews for the Easily Distracted:

Reviews for the Easily Distracted: Moneyball

Title: Moneyball

Oh. That's Fine. I Guess. What's the problem?

I'm Not Really Into Baseball Movies: That's cool. There's almost no baseball in Moneyball.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Three-and-a-half treadmills out of five.

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Tagline: "What Are You Really Worth?"

Better Tagline: "How Many World Series Titles Have The A's Won Since 1998?"

Brief Plot Synopsis: Baseball GM exercises, uses statistical analysis to get team to post-season.

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), once a hot draft prospect himself who retired after ten years with a batting average just barely over the Mendoza line, is struggling with his team's low (compared to the bigger clubs) payroll and imminent departure of three of his team's best players following the team's loss in the 2001 ALDS. He embraces the "sabermetric" approach of baseball statistician Bill James, which emphasizes things like runs scored over RBI, OPS (on-base percentage + slugging), and VORP. With the help of young Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), the two buck the traditional baseball scouting establishment and their own manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe) to try and put together a low-budget contender.

"Critical" Analysis: Merely looking at the facts behind Moneyball, it's hard not to be swept up by the story. A's GM Billy Beane did what many, okay most, conventional managers and scouts thought impossible and fielded a competitive team with what amounted to a nickel-and-dime payroll by MLB standards. He did this using castoffs (Scott Hatteberg) and potential head cases (Jeremy Giambi) that no other team would take a chance on. It's a compelling tale.

Unless you're a Giants fan, I guess.

So how does it rate as a movie? In this case, fictionalized dramatization is somewhat less riveting than fact. Maybe it's because I read Michael Lewis's book when it came out and tend to side with those who think Beane would have been better off if he hadn't given a journalist so much access to his strategy. Knowing the outcome (the A's have won only one postseason series since Beane took over and haven't made the playoffs in five years), it's hard to buy too much into the underdog storyline.

And that could just be me. In purely movie terms, Moneyball is solid. Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian's script is smart and economical, taking potentially narcoleptic material and crafting an engaging story. I have bagged on Sorkin in the past for his affectations, but the screenplay is moving when it needs to be (Beane's scenes with his daughter) and humorous in spots as well (most of the 2002 season), bringing to mind baseball movies like Eight Men Out.

Baseball movies are the one sports genre that still occasionally tries to shoot for something meaningful beyond immediate circumstance. Football films used to do this (North Dallas Forty, Brian's Song), but now mostly stick closely to their inspirational clichés (Remember the Titans, The Blind Side). Baseball, for better or worse, has always held itself to greater importance, suffused with the history of the nation itself. Ken Burns made a TV show about this very thing; you should watch it some time.

But anyway, Moneyball the movie is Pitt's baby, and he fares reasonably well. Beane carries with him the disappointment of a failed pro career and is haunted by "the one decision I ever made for money": electing to sign with the Mets out of high school instead of going to college. Every action, every conversation, is limned with a sense of desperation and the possibility that a total meltdown is just around the corner.

Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, on the other hand, is the film's weak link. I don't know why John Podesta insisted on having his name omitted from the film, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was because he saw dailies of Hill early on. I realize a Yale economics major probably isn't supposed to be a live wire of intensity, but give me something.

The easy joke to make about Moneyball, and one that's been made a thousand times (hell, I did it myself before the jump), is Beane's lack of postseason success. It's for this reason that the movie's dramatic sports climax is not the playoffs, but whether or not the A's will set the record for longest regular season winning streak. To his credit, Beane knows his legacy will be determined by whether or not he wins a Series. Even so, it shouldn't take away from the reality that this line of thinking -- focusing on discrete data pertaining to runs scored and wins earned over esoteric factors like "heart" and how hot a player's girlfriend is -- is more and more widespread in Major League Baseball. It's no coincidence that the Red Sox won their first World Series since the Wilson Administration after hiring Bill James (and attempting to hire Beane as well).

But here's the trick. As long as Oakland has some of the poorest attendance in MLB and a payroll that's a third of the Yankees and Boston, they're never going to compete, because as far as stats will get you, you need to be able to pay for the big names that are also statistically beneficial, and a team needs marquee players to put butts in the seats.

Moneyball is in theaters today. Statistically speaking, probably 74% of potential viewers will catch it in on the big screen.

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