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Moneyball

[Rating: 3/5]

It’s hard to say what “Moneyball” is about, really. It’s easy to say it’s about baseball, and Billy Beane, and the 2002 Oakland Athletics, but that’s not getting at it.  It’s tempting to say — and I’ve seen people say– that it’s about trusting new-fangled statistical analysis over old-fashioned scouts’ conventional wisdom and instincts, but that’s really missing the point.  A movie about replacing people with computers ought to be cold and heartless.  In that movie, Billy Beane is like the guy who invented SkyNet in the “Terminator” franchise; he may not know what’s he doing, but he’s bringing about the apocalypse with his ignorance. Instead, at the heart of “Moneyball” is a man with guts, intelligence and instincts.  He’s good at what he does, but he’s tired of hitting the glass ceiling of small market baseball teams.  He can develop talented ballplayers, but the minute they have a choice, they jump ship for the big markets and the big money.  So he turns to unconventional sources in an attempt to look at the game from a different angle.

After losing the ALCS in five games to the big-budget Yankees, and then losing 3 of his best players in the offseason to big-budget teams, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt, who is in almost every frame of this film) decides it’s time to do something different.  He’s tired of developing young talent into stars and then watching them bolt for the bigger markets and bigger contracts as soon as they get good.  He’s tired of replacing stars with prospects.  So he looks to Jonah Hill.  (OK, this is odd and irrelevant, but I’ve got to get it off my chest.  Jonah Hill plays a character named Peter Brand in the film.  But it’s clearly, obviously based on Paul DePodesta.  Why did they change the name?  Beane’s name is the same, as is Art Howe’s, Johnny Damon’s, Scott Hatteberg’s, David Justice’s and many others.  Some of those guys — namely Howe and Damon — come off looking less than great.  DePodesta looks like a nerdy genius who can do no wrong.  So why is he called Peter Brand?)

Hill and Pitt develop a system of rating players based primarily on their ability to get on base.  This generates a list of underrated, easily affordable players, and they proceed to go get those players, much to the costernation of their owner, fans, and especially managers (the aforementioned Howe, played stoically by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is completely baffled and angered by this new strategy and refuses to play the new guys.  But a rough start to the season turns itself around via a 20 game winning streak – unheard of in baseball, or any sport, really – and an unexpected return to the playoffs.

This is a very warm, human film; it’s about one man’s instincts and daring versus a big, entrenched system of conventional wisdom and established scouting ideas.  In a way, it has a lot in common with “The Social Network;” they’re both about intrepid, controversial innovators, albeit in very different fields.  Aaron Sorkin wrote both movies; maybe they feel alike because of his hand, or maybe he’s just drawn to this type of project.

But “Moneyball” is frustratingly uneven. Snappy, entertaining sequences bearing Sorkin’s trademark gift for dialogue are broken up by slow, sodden bits about Beane’s past failures, doubts, and personal life (the girl who plays his daughter is cute enough, but she doesn’t belong in this movie.) And then it picks back up again, then slows to a skid.  Really, it plays a bit like a 162 game baseball season, full of streaks and slumps.  Ted Williams famously said that the trick to good hitting was to keep the valleys from becoming canyons, and “Moneyball” mostly manages that.  But Ted Williams it ain’t.

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