Thursday, November 10, 2011

Moneyball (2011)

It lacks the human touch that would have made it great. 

He hits the ball, hard, into center field. His habit is to always stop at first but, in the moment, he rounds the bag, running to second. He’s horrified as his worst fear is realized. He’s slipped and fallen, sliding in the dirt. In a panic, he writhes on the ground, arms extended, reaching for the safety of the white first-base bag. As he desperately scrambles for first, he hears the basemen laughing at him. He’d hit a home run and he didn’t even know it.

So goes the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. His revolutionary methods changed the way baseball is played forever. Yet, while the world recognized his greatness, he couldn’t see it. He lamented his failures, unable to see he’d hit a home run.

The A’s of the 2002 season are losers. They have a small budget and their three biggest stars have just left for more prestigious ball clubs. Billy becomes increasingly frustrated with his coaching staff, the managers crudely evaluating possible new players. But when Billy meets Peter Brandt, the game changes. Peter suggests a new type of tactic, a roster focused less on appearance and appeal and more on the ability to drive in runs. Baseball is, after all, a game of statistics. Billy and Peter assemble their motley crew of misfit ball players and are met with skepticism, mockery and scorn. But the A’s, against everyone's expectations, start winning.

By all statistical measurements, this film should have been great—inspirational true story, great cast, sports scenes, family turmoil and drama. By all odds, it should have been a winner. But it wasn’t great. In fact, it was barely average. The reason for this? The film failed to connect with my heart. I never felt inspired by or attached to the lives of the characters. Even when the drama escalated, Billy finding it increasingly difficult to manage a team and maintain a relationship with his daughter, I felt detached. Even when the film tried to further deepen Billy’s character by sporadic flashbacks, highlighting his failed career as a player, I never felt involved.

The acting and characterization were strong but, at times, I didn’t believe the actors. Brad Pitt seldom was Billy Beane. I never connected with him or the others on an emotional level. Frankly, I didn’t really care. Compared to Aaron Sorkin’s last, Oscar-winnining screenplay for The Social Network, this one flagged. I wished that, as in The Social Network, the characters would have been stronger, the dialogue snappier and the comedic interludes not so far apart. The interplays between Billy and Peter are heartfelt, sometimes amusing, but still they neglected the personal touch that the film so desperately needed.

For a sports film, Moneyball spends little time on the field. Instead, much of the screen time is given to statistical figures flashing across the screen. But the time spent showing America’s pastime is worth the wait. Highly stylized, well scored and beautifully choreographed sequences give an ethereal feeling to the game. The lighting during these sequences stood out, a perfect example of modern chiaroscuro. Only these scenes provided the desired sports film catharsis I longed for. I couldn’t resist rooting for the underdog A’s. Truly, these were the only scenes that really made me care.

Moneyball never hits a home run. It has strong characters, a solid, inspirational story and some great sports action; statistically speaking, this film should have been great. But without characters or dialogue that make the audience care, it’s only average.

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