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TedFlicks Rating: ★★★☆☆


Any picture starring Brad Pitt is bound to get some buzz.  Such is the case with “Moneyball,” the second feature film from Bennett Miller in which Pitt stars as Billy Beane, general manager of baseball’s Oakland A’s in one year — the 2001 playoffs to the 2002 playoffs.  Unfortunately, the strength of “Moneyball” is also its Achilles’ Heel:  The facts.

“Moneyball” is based on a true story, Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”  It’s the chronicle of how Beane and a chubby computer geek, Peter Brand (the name was changed), played by Jonah Hill, rebuild the A’s after the team is picked clean of its star players at the end of the 2001 season.  Peter Brand is based on Paul DePodesta, currently Vice President of player development and scouting for the New York Mets.  He is thin, not chubby.  But Jonah Hill’s girth works in his favor dramatically.  He joined the A’s in 1999, not 2001 as the movie maintains, but as a dramatic device joining the A’s right after its 2001 playoff elimination works better.  Score one run and a double for Hollywood.

Brad Pitt is a good actor.  He is far better as a comedian than in a dramatic role, but his dramatic chops are improving.  That said his rapid-fire classic comic moments in “Moneyball” are among his best on film.  What he should avoid is playing scenes opposite attractive children.  He gets creamed in every scene with Kerris Dorsey as his shy, musically talented, charming 12-year-old daughter Casey.  Your critic imagines that Pitt does not mind much being overshadowed by so talented a newcomer.

Plot is simple:  Beane encounters Brand as an assistant to the GM of the Cleveland Indians on a visit to trade players.  The Indians’ GM listens to the kid as if he were the Grand Lama of Tibet.  Beane zeros in on him wanting to know just what intelligence he imparts to his boss.  It’s computer analysis of statistics.  It’s also deceptively simple:  The more a ballplayer gets on base, the better his team’s chances are of winning.  This flies in the face of the collective wisdom of veteran baseball scouts, who rely on observation and instinct.  It also flies in the face of A’s manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a role that was made for him).  Instead of buying players, Beane buys Brand from the Indians and makes him Assistant General Manager.  Brand’s corollary is that players who get on base a lot are often undervalued by fans and more so by front offices who underpay them because they possess some unfashionable element — maybe they’re fat, or a pitcher has a strange looking throw, or a runner has a goofy stride.  Brand’s statistics show that the teams whose player’s get on base more than the other teams’ players win more games than the other teams.  If the theory is true, it accounts for the success of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.

Beane’s drama is this.  The A’s have a payroll that is about one fourth that of the Yankees, baseball’s richest team.  The Oakland A’s are at the bottom of baseball’s financial heap.  That’s where the money in “Moneyball” comes into play.  The Yanks can pluck just about any player they want from any other team as soon as a contract expires.  The A’s cannot compete financially.  They need some other edge.  Brand’s statistics provide it.  They enable the A’s to assemble a team that defies conventional wisdom at a price they can afford.

The drama is pretty simple.  The A’s scouts revolt.  The owner will not up the budget.  Art Howe refuses to play the lineup that Beane provides him.  The A’s lose game after game in the 2002 season until Beane stages a palace coup which forces Howe to use the players that Beane has hired.  There follows the greatest winning streak in the history of Major League Baseball:  20 games in a row go to the A’s.

It’s not The Natural (1984), but when it finally gets moving, about halfway through its 133 minutes, it offers some suspense.  Brand’s strategy appears not to be working.  In fact, it has been sabotaged by Art Howe.  Beane’s palace coup clears the way for Brand’s statistics to have a chance at success.  In a way, baseball fans may not be pic’s ideal audience.  It helps if one does not know what happened in the 2002 baseball season.  It’s not the curse of the Bambino.  It’s the curse of The Facts.  It’s based on a true story, remember?

Structure is straightforward.  Opening cards indicate the difference between the payroll of the A’s and the Yankees.  One could not set the stage more unequivocally.  Title cards specify dates and events.  Flashback’s to Beane’s early life as a full scholarship winner to Stamford who is seduced at age 18 by a large check from the New York Mets could be dispensed with.  Beane’s history doesn’t matter much to the story although helmer Miller thinks it does.  The subplot with daughter Casey and ex-wife Sharon (Robin Wright) provide sufficient backstory.  Pitt is at his best wheeling and dealing for players and cash.  He works the phones the way Isaac Stern played the violin.

In the end, however, pic fails to satisfy.  It’s the fealty to the facts.  Epilogue cards, wherein pic’s dénouement is revealed should have been omitted.  It would be better if auds were left to wonder whether Billy Beane accepted the $12.5-million offer from the Boston Red Sox to be General Manager.

Tech credits, including sound recording, editing by Christopher Tellefsen, production design by Jess Gonchor, and lensing by Wally Pfister are more than up to par.  Supporting players leave little to be desired.  There is one jarring note in the final reel:  It’s the lyric of a song burned onto a CD by Casey for Billy in which she sings to her dad.  One could call it the “Anti-Hollywood Ending.”

“Moneyball” is rated PG-13.  It’s a tad long, but other than some language, there is nothing in it to offend the kids.  Despite its flaws, it gets by on star-power, a good underdog story, and some witty dialogue by Aaron Sorkin.  As baseball flicks go, it is by no means the worst.  But perhaps it would have been better served by a little more “Damn Yankees!” and a little less History Channel.



Moneyball on Netflix
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