September 28, 2011

Romanticism & Capitalism

I'll be honest, I'm not a sports guy. Like, really not a sports guy. The only sport I really care about is swimming, and even then I only really follow it when the Olympics rears its head. I just never really enjoyed sports. Never really enjoyed playing it competitively, and never really enjoyed watching it. Sure, I'll go to a baseball game, but I'm not going for the actual game. I'm going to for the environment, to be with friends, and, not gonna lie, to enjoy a ballpark frank. Seriously, I don't know what they put in those things, but it's über addicting. It's like crack, if crack were a long, tubular, slab of beef.
Anyway, I've enjoyed a pretty healthy relationship with sports movies over the years. I got all chocked up and inspired with Miracle, enjoyed Rocky immensely, and relived some Indiana pride with Hoosiers (I was born in Indy, so, you know...). But, I gotta say, the sports movies I've enjoyed the most are the ones that that push the sport to the sidelines and use it as a springboard to deal with more interesting things. I probably enjoyed Coach Carter a lot more than I should have because it didn't really deal with a basketball team's rise prominence so much as it dealt with one man's struggle to reform a group of kids in a community that would be happy to see them stay the way they are. The Fighter was amazing because it dealt chiefly with the relationship between Mickey and Dicky, and how boxing effected that relationship. Hell, even Glory Road, which is a film where the sport is center stage, takes time away to deal with race issues in NCAA basketball. These types of movies aren't just great sports movies, they are great movies in general. (Ok, maybe not Glory Road.) Moneyball is that type of movie. Moneyball is a great movie!

Sure could use some Cracker Jacks right about now.

It's nearing the 2002 MLB season, and the Oakland A's are in a bit of funk. After losing in the first round of the playoffs during the previous season, the Bay Area team lost their three star players to free agency. Wouldn't be a problem, if the A's franchise wasn't one of the poorest in the league. General Manager Billy Beane is tasked with finding new players that could potentially lead his green and yellow team to a championship. Unfortunately, his scouts have a decidedly old fashioned way of doing things, leading Billy to seek outside help. Enter Peter Brand, a fresh out of Yale stats analyst with a love of the game and a fresh way to pick up players, one that Billy believes can work. So he brings in the kid, which sits none to well with the rest of the administration, who see this as an act of betrayal, against them and the storied traditions of the game that they all love. It's Billy's ass on the line, and as the season begins, his gambit is put to the test.

Sure, it's one of those classic, "new guy comes in and shakes up the comfortable routine" stories that many movies employ, but said story is rarely featured in sports movies, or rather, rarely featured in sports movies like this. Moneyball is a sports movie in the simplest sense. It's about the game, how the game is played, and above all things, the love of the game. But, unlike most sports movies, it's not really about the actual act of playing the game. Instead, Moneyball focuses on the numbers of the game, batting averages and the like, and this refreshing approach paints the entire baseball sub genre in a whole new light. Sure, we have the elements of an underdog team defying the expectations and achieving something great, but the film is more concerned with what is going on behind the scenes of the game, and I for one love that. It's a view of the sport that we don't see all that often, shown through the eyes of seasoned veterans who love the game, love to win, and hate to lose.

Brad Pitt is at his livewire best as Beane. Between this and The Tree of Life, Pitt is having a career year, staring in roles that really let him to flex his seriously strong acting muscles. While I think his portrayal of a troubled father in Tree is more effective, his take on this influential GM is right up there with his best performances. Pitt effectively mixes the charm of Rusty Ryan and the gruffness of David Mills, crafting a character than can be funny and amicable one moment, while being serious and humorless the next.

Jonah Hill makes a seamless transition out of the stoner humor, playing Brand with a palpable earnestness, and displaying a winning chemistry with Pitt. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as a difficult and self-interested manager. Robin Wright does alright in her extended cameo, and Keris Dorsey almost steals the show as Billy's adorable daughter.

Sure does make the Coliseum look like a shithole!

In his first feature since 2005's Capote, director Bennet Miller tackles a seemingly impossible task, that of making an endless stream of baseball statistics into an interesting and engaging film, with humor, pathos, and aplomb. He's helped along tremendously by an Oscar worthy script by Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin, and he does great job reeling in his ensemble.

Somewhere along the line, someone mutters that it's impossible to not romanticize baseball. While the film is painting the game in a decidedly unromantic light, it proves that statement correct. Though the film is more interested in the harsh realities that plague a major league team with barely any money to scrape together, it does pause to remind us how much one moment in the game can mean to a whole mess of people, and it's really nice! I'm not one for baseball; I find sitting through a full game kind of a chore, but I absolutely get the romanticism of it, and I really like the romanticism of it, and I really like how this film paints in a realistic way.

There are some bumps in the road. The movie begins and ends with an image of Brad Pitt's eyes, as if Miller wants us to see into his soul or some shit, and it doesn't really work. Also, there is a little too much time spent on Beane's backstory as a promising first round pick who went nowhere fast. I mean, it's all relevant within the big picture, but the spend a full handful of scenes on it when they could have spent one and have it be just as effective.  

All gripes aside thought, Moneyball is pretty excellent. Boasting great performances, superb writing, and a fresh take on the whole sports movie thing, this is really is one you can't afford to miss. You know, I gotta say, I wonder where we go from here. I mean, it's only September. I'm anxious to see what the rest of the year brings, because this time of year usually starts off slow. So when we are getting movies this good this early in the "Oscar" season, the sky's the limit for what's to come.

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