Thursday, 8 December 2011

“I’ve got to let go and just enjoy the show”

Moneyball: directed by Bennett Miller; written by Stan Chervin, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin

How to approach Moneyball? It’s become something of a problem for me because since the week and a half that sat down and actually watched the film I’ve been having a particularly difficult time finding a way to get started on actually writing about it, even thinking about writing it has been difficult. The thing is that I don’t think that I ever got the chance to discover Moneyball as organically as I would have hoped to. And, really, it’s not so much a compliant as it is my own attempt at full disclosure. It’s an occupational hazard of being a movie blogger who dabbles (dabbles, he tell you) in Oscar prognosticating. Because, even though I had neither seen the trailer nor read any reviews of it (until I’d already seen it) I still could not run from the overwhelming buzz surrounding the film and its chances at Oscar, and how much of a godsend it was to Pitt as an actor and how it revolutionised the sports’ film. And, well, things like that.
Now, that sounds like a particularly bitter opening, and I didn’t enter Moneyball with any amount of bitterness because I happen to like Brad Pitt a whole lot, but honest is honest and after seeing Moneyball I was reminded about something a reviewer had said in praise of Up in the Air (Reiteman’s 2009 Oscar contender which I was least fond of) which was that it was the type of film which shows how magical it can be when you put X movie star in a film and just let them exist in their normal register. I agreed with that when it came to Up in the Air which I did not like and even though I liked Moneyball, fair is fair and I can’t get around the feeling that it’s that self-same penchant of Miller and Company to watch X star – in this case Brad Pitt – sink his teeth into a role tailor made to show off his ability, while still existing in that realm of “Brad Pitt is cool”-ness. Pitt is billed as one of the producers here, and I do wonder what hand he played in creating the character because considering the atypical side of the battle Beane is playing from it’s interesting that as played by Pitt there’s a rather photogenic face put to the very non-photogenic waves the protagonist is trying to make in the film.
The problem which faces Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics’ baseball team, is not a wholly new one. His team is cash strapped and forced to compete against giants with millions of dollars at their disposal. This is an issue that rears its head irrespective of baseball affiliation. The quest for the David’s in the world to fight against the gargantuan pockets of the Goliath’s is one which immediately identifies Moneyball as a film which is very interested in making the audience feel nice, even if at its heart it’s based on a ook bout statistics. It’s adapted from Michael Lewis’ bestselling book, but for cinematic purposes becomes the story of Beane. Moneyball benefits from the fact that Pitt comes off as such a genuinely nice guy, with such a legitimately nice charm that Miller knows he can rest the film on his capable shoulders. I wonder, too, if because Pitt is playing him Sorkin and company are keen to ensure that Billy comes off as messiah-like as possible despite his proclivity to toss furniture around, and the hints at his emotional unavailability. Because, really, Moneyball and everything about it – its editing, its cinematography, its acting, its entire look – is just really nice.
It’s something worth thinking of, though, because Miller’s directing style which is still very, very laidback does not contribute much which is invasive leaving it up to the actors and the screenplay. Through the intermittent flashbacks we eventually learn that perhaps Beane is just a bit resentful of the community he is a part of now. He was supposed to be a sure thing when he entered the game in his youth, but it didn’t work out for him. So, with the help of his sidekick Beane’s attempts to revolutionise the game might be personal even though it’s worth noting that he only launched into this game changing decision with his back pressed to the world. We don’t spend too much time simonising on what it means for him to be with his back to the wall. Two short scenes with his ex-wife suggest a significant amount of turmoil below the surface which is not something incidental, but most of his personal life is relegated to moments with his daughter Casey (played with a surprising lack of pretention by Kerris Dorsey). And, it’s all on Pitt to establish Billy’s issues because we realise that there’s a striking paucity to the emotion which Billy reveals in these moments where his eyes are telling us – desperately – that he loves his daughter, but he still has all those walls put up.

It’s why it’s the slightest bit of a problem that Miller isn’t a more of a hands-on director because with the film depending so much on Pitt and his Beane , which he excellently personifies with as much quiet restraint as you can imagine. I’ve been a fan of Pitt far too long for me to jump on the this-is-his-best-performance bandwagon, but he’s excellent. So, excellent that the film’s lack of a strident directorial style begins to bend to Pitt’s own character’s inclinations turning the film into something like a like its protagonist - a beautiful thing that’s a bit tough to really love. Still, I have to hand it to the film that it acknowledges the fact that the audience might not even be that interested in either the statistics or the game at the heart of the film and manages to establish its point by being very easy on the brain. It sort of feels like the film just sort of leapt out of the writer’ consciousness which is much more a compliment than it sounds because even though the middle section of the film sags in some odd places the easiness of it all is something very difficult to duplicate. It’s easy, it’s unpretentious and it’s simple.
The fact the film is a crowd-pleaser didn’t come up in all the murmurings of the film I’d hard and an incidental rumbling I heard of it being the thinking-man’s sports’ film probably made me think I had to do more thinking than I should have. Moneyball is at its best, and even at its worst, a rather simple and nice entry in the annals of 2011 films. I don’t mean to be disparaging when I say that in a few years it might be memorable only for Pitt’s performance (and perhaps Jonah Hill’s). And, that’s not really a bad thing because it is a fine film. It luxuriates in its simplicity, but there’s no harm in sitting back and enjoying the show.
Addendum: To clarify, a B grade is a stellar grade from me. The thing about yardstick measurements for films is that you can’t be sure if one’s B is another man’s poison. But, B is somewhere around the 7/10 bracket for me, meaning I’d recommend this film to anyone in a heartbeat.

Addendum 2: And, apologies to the readers who might have noticed that even my most “positive” of reviews seem laced with a tinge of dourness which even I cannot explain because Moneyball really is an impossible sweet experience, so I apologise for making it sound not so.


Dan O. said...

It's a very well-executed film that has great performances from Hill and Pitt but the way they tried to put in the little dramatic sub-plot with Beane and his daughter, felt a little shoe-horned for me. Good review Andrew.

Nick Prigge said...

I think your review very much gets to the heart of the matter - it's a nice movie that's easy on the eyes and it ends you think "That was good" and then you go on with your day.