Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Moneyball (2011) ***

“Moneyball” is a different kind of sports movie. The theme is familiar: Someone takes a ragtag bunch of misfits that no one else wants and turns them into a successful team. The execution, however, is something new. Most sports movies introduce the inept players, then feature a montage of inspired coaching and practice that turns those losers into champions. “Moneyball” focuses on Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his geeky assistant Peter Brand (A fictional name given to actual A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta, played by Jonah Hill), and the montages are of these two going over statistics and mapping probabilities. It can be dry stuff, but it’s a fascinating movie nonetheless, and it‘s based on real life.

The setup begins with the A’s losing their division to the New York Yankees in 2001. It was actually an accomplishment for a small club like the A’s to get as far as they did, considering that they were outspent 4 to 1 by the Yankees. That didn’t really ease the pain, though, when, after the season, the A’s three star players were lured away by richer teams. Left to rebuild with a limited budget, Beane becomes disgusted by the subjective criteria employed by his recruiting scouts. These guys base their recommendations on things like the quality of the sound of the ball hitting a player’s bat, the shape of a player’s jaw, or even how his girlfriend looks. (“An ugly girlfriend means no confidence.”) Beane knows there is something basically wrong with their system, and he has an inkling of how to fix it, but it all gels when he meets Brand, a Yale-educated economics major. Brand has a mathematical model that he believes can identify under-valued players, winning players who can be recruited cheaply, which is just what Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s need.

The two put together an unlikely team, butting heads with everyone else in baseball. They even recruit a washed-up catcher to play first base. Things are rocky at first, and they lose a lot of games, but they stick to their guns, and gradually things turn around. Brand applies his computer models to everything about each player’s game, helping them figure out when to let pitches go, how to get walked more, and ultimately how to get more runs.

Beane and Brand take the A’s farther than they should have gotten, for the poorest team in the league, but they don’t turn the A’s into champions. They do, however, turn baseball on its head, revolutionizing the way teams evaluate talent. I’m no baseball expert, but I’m told that today everybody does it Beane’s way.

Meanwhile, director Bennett Miller has made a rather quiet, interestingly different sports movie. Brad Pitt deserves a lot of the credit for his naturalistic portrayal of Beane. My only complaint is that the film is perhaps a little too subtle. The connection between the statistical analyses and what happens on the field isn’t drawn compellingly enough, leaving the movie feeling a little dry. It’s a good movie, and I think baseball fans will be smitten, but in the end I don’t think “Moneyball” will be a classic sports movie.

3 stars

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