Saturday, October 1, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

Of all sports movies over time, Baseball movies have held a special sense of tradition and lore in Hollywood.  From The Natural to Field of Dreams to even comedic classics like Major League and The Naked Gun, the general American audience has fondly embraced the portrayal of the National Pastime on the big screen.  With the screen adaptation of Michael Lewis' best seller Moneyball, we get yet another classic baseball film, this time a movie that is finally geared towards more of a specific audience, the Baseball Geek.

Moneyball is a mostly non-fictional recount of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, a failed baseball player who gained notoriety for forming a team of low-budget players that ended up breaking Major League records in 2002, competing against major market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox with a fraction of the same payroll.  Beane used the concept of Bill James' Sabermetrics (a statistical look at the game of baseball that puts more of an emphasis on getting on base) to put together a talented team of unknown and unheralded players.  In the age of big-money free agent signing, Beane went against the grain of other free wheeling general managers and looked to uncover a wealth of hidden talent, spreading money across several players instead of spending a large percentage on one or two all-stars.

Brad Pitt stars in the role of Beane and ends up giving an excellent performance by playing an everyday guy who's passionate about baseball.  He tries to achieve post-career greatness after failing as a touted prospect during his playing days.  We get to see his personal side as he tries to keep a strong relationship with his daughter from a previous marriage.  The father-daughter bond ends up impacting his decision at the end of the movie on whether to allows his success to propel him to a position with the Boston Red Sox.  This is one of Pitt's most memorable performances as he doesn't let the star power of "Brad Pitt" supersede the character of Beane.

Joining Pitt as assistant GM is Jonah Hill who plays Peter Brand, a fictional character that is a makeup of several individuals that influenced Billy Beane in his managerial career.  Hill's character is a young baseball stat geek who helps Beane realize that there is a more effective way to run an organization and compete with the large market teams.  This is definitely Jonah Hill's most serious role to-date.  He mixes in a bit of humor with his deadpan delivery but overall he plays a serious baseball seam-head that ends up contributing to the A's organization in a more effective way than a series of established team scouts that are frustrated with Brand's approach to evaluating talent.

I've seen a lot of baseball movies and without a doubt, Moneyball features the most realistic portrayal of modern day baseball.  We don't end up watching fictional over-produced climactic scenes where a struggling star hits a home run and wins the championship.  In fact, the story doesn't have a happy closed-end conclusion and the highlight of the plot is a simple winning streak for the A's.  While most people will find this film enjoyable (even women who know little about baseball - call it the Brad Pitt Factor), the real appeal of Moneyball will be felt by true Baseball diehards.  As a lifelong fan myself, I felt like I was in baseball geek heaven throughout the movie.

The realism factor of this movie cannot be underestimated.  On screen were players I had followed through my many years of managing a fantasy baseball team.  Instead of watching yet another motion picture portrayal of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle or another baseball legend, the audience is treated to the more obscure stars of the 2000's including Tim Hudson, David Justice, Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon.  These were/are players whose statistics I actually followed and remember.  I really enjoyed how Moneyball showcase the behind-the-scenes inner workings of a Major League Baseball team.  Nothing is over embellished or glorified and the pure essence of baseball comes through.  The actual baseball sequences are filmed close-up in the proper stadiums with the proper MLB uniforms.  Everything just seems overly authentic which is great.

This is a movie that a baseball purist will thoroughly enjoy.  Since I am I lifelong baseball fan it's hard for me to assess this from a non-baseball perspective.  I can imagine that the overall story and great performances would appeal to more of a mass audience as well.  This is a must-see movie for all sports fans and is definitely one of the best movies of 2011.  4.5 well earned JRs for Moneyball which falls in line with some of the great sports movies ever made.