Missing the Ball

Billy Beane (Pitt) and Peter Brand (Hill) shake up baseball in "Moneyball".

Baseball fans have always loved to imagine the great “what-ifs” of the sport. What if Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio had been traded? What if Buckner hadn’t let that ball go through his legs? What if the Red Sox signed Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson? What if Bill Veeck had put a team of Negro League All-Stars in Philadephia in 1944? Every season, baseball fans wonder if things had been just a little different, how might the fortunes of their team have changed?

Baseball fans have a new what-if scenario: what if Steven Soderbergh had directed Moneyball (opening today at the Movieland at Boulevard Square?)

If you’ve read the book and have been following its strange route to the silver screen, you might have heard that Soderbergh was slated to write and direct. Incredible! Soderbergh’s cool, calculated style would have been perfect for a book with the same attitude.

Sadly, the studios balked at Soderbergh’s supposedly kooky ideas (rumor had it that he was going to include an animated Bill James.) I’m guessing they paid a mint for the rights to the bestseller, which may explain why they handed the project to Bennett Miller, known for the hugely overpraised Capote, with the script being handled by Oscar winners Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network.)

Well, baseball, like musicals, can trip up even the most talented filmmakers. Moneyball, the book, was shocking and new, detailing a growing movement in the sport, a statistical revolution that has only grown with the years. Author Michael Lewis took his fantastic journalistic skills and took his readers behind the scenes of one of the most beleaguered clubs in the sport, riding along with a cast of some really amazing characters.

The problem? There’s hardly a narrative in Moneyball. It’s the story, as it were, of how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane started using the incredible metrics, originated by statistician Bill James, to evaluate under-appreciated, and therefore cheap, players. This is important because the A’s were one of the poorest franchises in the sport, and had virtually no money.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that, in the book, there’s a lot of people poring over numbers, and very little baseball. How is that a problem? That’s a problem because very few filmmakers can take guys looking at numbers and make them exciting.

Therein lies the “what-if”: This strange tale should have been directed by Soderberg or David Fincher, two calculating men who could shoot a totally unconventional movie that appeals to non-baseball fans just as, say, The Social Network appealed to people who didn’t give a rip about Facebook.

The problem? The problem is Moneyball, the movie, is nothing more than a baseball movie. I find it hard to imagine that anyone who dislikes the sport is going to enjoy the picture, and even though it has some winsome performances, it’s schmaltzy, predictable, and filled with cliches. And that’s damn sad.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, never more charming) runs the Oakland A’s, and ownership is not only busted, but totally disinterested in investing even a dime. The club has just come off a narrow loss to the New York Yankees in the playoffs (and the title cards remind us that the Yankees payroll is three times that of the A’s), and is about to lose two of its best players–Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon. How do you replace such men, with so little money?

(We’ll ignore the obvious questions: did the club just get poor? After all, they were just in the playoffs, right?)

To address this situation, the dopey scouts keep digging in the minors, looking for the next phenom, using such criterion as whether or not the guy has a girlfriend–if he doesn’t, he’s a bust, because he lacks confidence.

Beane is an edgy guy, smart, sexy, once a phenom himself who failed, and failed miserably in the big leagues. He knows the scouts are wrong. He rolls his eyes, asks them pointed questions, but they’re tried and true dopes and can’t do anything right (except, of course, get the core players who made last year’s club a few outs from an AL Pennant.)

On a trip to Cleveland to see about a trade, he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a stathead working his first job straight from his economics degree at Yale. The two hit it off, and Brand comes to work for Beane, bringing with him a revolutionary outlook that will change the game forever.

Pitt and Hill are remarkable. They are a perfect comic pair, good friends here, kindred spirits, with a great give-and-take and rapid-fire dialogue that is screenwriter Sorkin’s bread and butter.

But that’s about it for Moneyball. Most of the characters are broadly written. There’s a nearly embarrassing subplot involving Beane’s daughter (Kerris Dorsey) who sings emo songs that make her Dad cry with said tune. There’s assistant coaches, scouts, announcers and managers (and others) who sputter, hem and haw, and complain at every word that comes from Beane’s and Brand’s mouth. Philip Seymour Hoffman has a totally thankless role as manager Art Howe, who apparently did nothing–nothing–but bitch and whine about his team, all the while leading them to a record breaking 20 game winning streak. The scouts are, as I said, just plain dumb. (Note: this is, I admit, straight from the book, which, despite being great, painted everyone who disagreed with Beane as a moronic rube.)

Much of the script is just plain lazy. One way that we know Hill is smart is because he has a poster of Plato over his bed. What? (Hill also wears “Yale” sweatshirts a lot, in case you’d forgotten his alma mater.) Neither the screenwriters or the director seems to understand how to show a conversation over the phone–Beane travels everywhere, simply to have a discussion that he could have done over the phone. The montages are clumsy, guys pointing at computer screens again and again. The ex-wife and husband are modern, L.A.-style peaceniks, the guy wearing sandals and mispronouncing the ballplayers’ names. (Note to the filmmakers: there’s a ton of peace-loving, sandal wearing dudes who love baseball… and I’m guessing a number of Hollywood filmmaking types who don’t.)

Again and again I kept wishing for the deft hand of Soderbergh, who would have shown the team’s accepting the gospel of on-base percentage (the crux of the revolution) with a much more nimble (and subtle) style. In Moneyball, Beane and Brand get their players to start taking more walks (and increase their on-base percentage) by telling them to take more walks. Apparently, it’s that easy. Why they don’t just go around and tell the batters to hit more homers and the pitchers to throw more strikes is beyond me.

Moneyball is as conventional as it gets, which is disastrous for an adaptation of a book that is regarded as the most important and innovative title in a sport with literally thousands of books covering every subject under the sun. The movie is fun, in terms of seeing a couple of guys pal around, thrilling to trades and stats, and seeing the fruits of their labors come to life on the ballfield (in a series of patently dull baseball shots.) But you still have cliches like Beane wishing he were still married (he doesn’t take off his ring), the underdog player hitting the winning home run, the endless scenes of guys walking out on an empty diamond, pondering their life. C’mon, this is Moneyball, not Field of Dreams.

In the end, Moneyball is as good as an average HBO movie, which is where I wished it had shown, if only to allow the filmmakers to have a couple more hours to actually develop complex thoughts and maybe make complex, not cardboard, characters. Someday, maybe we’ll get a great baseball movie, an innovative film about America’s national pastime. Moneyball, unfortunately, is not that movie. Not by a mile.

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