MONEYBALL (2011) (****)
How can you not be romantic about baseball? That's what Brad Pitt's Billy Beane says in this great baseball movie, which is more about the business of baseball than the game. And that said the film still does stir the desire to grab some peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jack and head out to the ole ball game.
The story follows Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, as he is forced to rebuild his team after losing three key players to other clubs. The dirty little secret in baseball, that anyone who knows baseball knows, is that the playing field is not level. As Beane says, there are rich teams and there are poor teams and there is 50 feet of crap and then there is the A's. When a trip to visit the Indians' GM about player trades goes badly, he seeks out the quiet guy by the door who seems to make the others listen to him. That guy is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, CYRUS), an Ivy League economics grad who believes that professional baseball has it all wrong when it comes to staffing teams.
Brand follows the sabermetric method, devised by Bill James, which uses statistics based on averages to field a team that will win enough games to make the playoffs. Beane hires the young man and devotes his new team to the unorthodox practice. But it's not that easy. For nearly a century professional baseball has done their scouting in the same way. Scouts seek out talent on feel. Beane's new approach puts all the scouts' jobs in jeopardy. Beane's coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, CAPOTE) thinks he's crazy and refuses to play the players Beane gets the way Beane had intended. One of his new hires is Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt, WANTED), a catcher Beane has gotten to play first base. With every loss everyone from commentators to fans believe the whole experiment is a bust.
Beane himself is a metaphor for how the old scouting game is hit or miss. He was signed right out of high school, turning down a scholarship at Stanford to play pro ball. He never panned out to be the star that everyone thought he'd be. He bounced around teams with stints in the minors until he decided to stop playing and become scout. For Beane, Brand's method puts science to the guessing game and helps hedge their bets on fielding a complete team that can win. It also allows him to get players that are a bang for his buck.
Pitt plays Beane as a great smartass kidder. Ironically, for a man who brought more science to the game, he has a superstitious streak where he refuses to watch the games. He is a man who doesn't just want to win, but wants to change the game that he blames for taking away his chance at a great education. Another part of his superstitious nature is not to get too close to his players, because you never know when you might have to trade or cut them. As his passion for the new way of doing things grows, the more personable he becomes. Success is good to him. Pitt plays him as a strong-willed optimistic man, who knocks out his self-doubt with sheer determination to follow something through.
Hill's Brand (a fictionalized version of Beane's real assistant Paul DePodesta) is the perfect foil. He's smart and enthusiastic, but very green. There is no way he would be heard if he didn't have a champion in his boss. Together they are like a perfect comedy duo. Beane's confidence and Brand's shy smarts and awkwardness bounce off each other with great humor. For instance, Beane asks Brand to analyze three players. Brand, afraid he'll look like a nerd, sheepishly says he's done 47 and then corrects himself and says it's 51. He doesn't know why he decided to lie about it.
Part of the joy of the film is getting a behind the scenes look at Major League Baseball and how teams are managed. Watching Beane make trades is like watching feverish traders on the stock market floor. Beane has to navigate the politics of the game to implement is plans. At one point he makes moves that even Brand has difficulty going along with for fear of what people will say. Money helps the process, but Beane is out to prove that it isn't necessary. He isn't doing any of this for the money, only to prove that he is right. But he is afraid that if he doesn't win the World Series, they will forget everything they have done.
Because this is a sports movie, the film does come down to a big game, but it's not like any other. It's a unique underdog tale. We're not just rooting for the players on the field, but the management. Having been schooled from so many other baseball films, I thought those guys were the enemy? This is a story of a man who challenges conventional wisdom. That's a brave thing to do when millions of dollars and livelihoods are on the line. This might be just a story of baseball, but it's still inspiring to all of us to have the courage to say something unpopular because we know it's right. You know… it's a metaphor.