Thursday, October 27, 2011

'Moneyball' a winner

My friend Matt Shelton summed up "Moneyball," the fantastic film starring Brad Pitt based on big-league baseball general manager Billy Beane and the unlikely success of the 2002 Oakland Athletics, by saying, "This will have to become a permanent second half of a 'Major League,' 'Moneyball' double feature."

I'll back up long enough to tell you that "Major League," the late 1980s baseball comedy, has been a staple at our laid-back get togethers for years. To put "Moneyball" in that slot, for us, is high praise, indeed.

And, of course, it's a better film. A wonderful film, in fact. Brad Pitt gives his best performance to date as the complex, self-conscious Beane. Jonah Hill manages to ditch enough of his "immature obese kid" persona to actually make himself likable as the Yale grad who helps Beane use player statistics to put together a winning team on a shoestring budget. Philip Seymour Hoffman is fine, if physically far-fetched, as manager Art Howe.

You probably know the film is based on a true story. Beane did take a Bill James-esque approach to fielding a team on a tight budget. The abridged version is he stressed the importance of on base percentage -- getting on base -- filling his roster with has beens, could bes and never was-es, looking for those who come cheap. The veteran scouts laugh in his face and manager Howe doesn't want to play along.

But, in its way, it works. Sort of.

Baseball movies have to be somewhat sentimental -- it is a romantic game, after all -- and I wondered how they'd pull that off in a movie dominated by data. I needn't have worried. The film digs into Beane's failed career as a major league player and the regret that haunts him over opportunities missed.

Pitt has been a likable guy for years but never anybody you'd name as a top-of-the-line actor. But he reaches down deep here and pulls off a grand slam of a performance. He makes this movie work, plain and simple.

The screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin is based on a story by Stan Chervin, as well as the Michael Lewis book "Moneyball." It zips and zings and holds your attention despite the film's longer-than-expected running time. You even get the ending you want without the usual sports film cliches.

About the only thing I can criticize is some of the casting choices. Stephen Bishop is supposed to be David Justice well past his prime, but looks like he's in his late 20s. Hoffman isn't going to fool anybody if he dresses up as Art Howe for Halloween. But, these misfires are minor and don't distract you too much.

I haven't enjoyed a baseball film this much in a long, long time. Even if you forget the sports angle, it's one of the best movies I've seen this year, second only to "Midnight in Paris" as my top pick for 2011.

Somehow I have a feeling that in the years to come this one will get pulled from the DVD shelf on New Year's Eve or Labor Day weekend or just on a lazy Saturday at Shelton's, when nothing's on TV and "Major League" has been given yet another look.

Heck, we might even watch it first.

"Moneyball" is now playing. It is rated PG-13.

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