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Jason Wallis Brad Pitt’s charm, swagger can’t save under-written ‘Moneyball’

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2011 7:54 am

The unrivaled cinematic high provided by “Drive” was fun while it lasted, but now it’s time to start the long, hard slog toward awards season. The period between the end of summer and the beginning of Oscar season proper is typically a bit of a dumping ground populated by not-quite-ready-for-primetime also-rans, but there are still some promising titles on the horizon.

Next week we’ll look at the cancer dramedy “50/50” (I’m a sucker for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, what can I say?), followed by the George Clooney-directed political-intrigue thriller “The Ides of March” and the (perhaps unnecessary) remake of “The Thing.” Until then, just keep loading up on horror flicks in preparation for Halloween. And see “Drive.”

To be fair, it should be noted right off the bat that I hate baseball. Along with football, it is quite possibly the most mind-numbingly boring sport in all of American culture, and certainly the most tainted. When watching movies I am usually able to see past my biases and evaluate a film on its own terms, but when it comes to sports movies in general and baseball flicks in particular, it can be difficult if not impossible for me to overlook the pure, inherent, absolutely soul-crushing dullness of the material. I suppose it is a credit to “Moneyball,” then, that it managed to keep me awake and somewhat engaged during its two-hour plus running length. “I didn’t fall asleep!” is hardly a ringing endorsement, I suppose, but under the circumstances it may constitute high praise.

“Moneyball” tells the true story of how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) revolutionized the way major league baseball teams select lineups, leading his A’s to a historic 20-game winning streak in the 2002 season and turning the world of pro ball on it ear in the process. A former would-be all-star who once discovered at some cost that scouts’ ability to spot true talent is not infallible, Beane is determined to prove that the team-selection process in place since the game’s inception is antiquated and, in a modern context, almost completely useless.

He finds an ally in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a player-stat analyst with the Cleveland Indians who shows Beane how to read the numbers in a different way and discover hidden strengths in undervalued players. Faced with beating the New York Yankees’ $120 million dream team with about a third of the budget, Beane hires Brand as his right-hand man, and together the two take on the entire major league establishment. Facing opposition at every turn (particularly when, at first, their highly irregular “system” appears not to work at all), they nevertheless stick to their guns and assemble their team, which Brand regards as a sort of Island of Misfit Toys for discarded ball players.

In charting the unlikely triumph of this ragtag group, the film embraces every sports-movie cliché imaginable. But, I must concede, it does so with some degree of skill, especially when you consider that very little of “Moneyball” takes place on the field. This is very much an insider’s view of the game, and naturally not very conducive to the swelling music and lump-in-the-throat moments that characterize the sports-movie genre. But somewhere in all the number-crunching and political in-fighting, director Bennett Miller (the Oscar-nominated director of “Capote,” marking his return after a six-year hiatus) finds something that speaks to the heart of the game, and the intrinsically American ideal of perseverance in the face of great adversity. The film’s emotional weight sneaks up on the viewer, and Miller makes full use of genre conventions without using them as a crutch.

In the end, the film’s biggest flaw is also its greatest financial asset: Brad Pitt. I’m generally a fan, and I know that he’s capable of greatness when matched with the right role. This, however, is not the right role. It would seem that Pitt would be perfectly suited to play Beane, who is defined by his at-ease charm and cocky swagger. Yet, as written, Beane is simply not fleshed-out enough for a performer of Pitt’s caliber. With little to fuel him but that character-defining charm and macho swagger, Pitt often seems lost in the role.

We see flashbacks to Beane’s unsuccessful stint in the majors, but these scenes lack true substance, and never reveal anything about Beane’s experience other than the cultivation of bitter regret. This may help explain his drive to prove the system wrong and eliminate his own culpability in these failings, but they do little to explain why Beane is so dead-set on sticking with his profoundly reckless numbers system, almost to the point of obsession and madness. Without this key window into Beane’s motivations and psychological makeup, the whole film is marginalized. It’s a compelling “inside baseball” exercise for sports fan, perhaps, but for the rest of us, “Moneyball” is just another severely under-written, dime-a-dozen underdog story.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. 

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