Reviewing 'Moneyball' as a Movie

Billy Casey

Art is a lie that tells the truth.
- Pablo Picasso


I saw Moneyball five nights before its official release, at a press screening.

I saw it again Friday night, in a packed movie theater. It wasn't until then that I fully appreciated how well the movie was made.

What makes Moneyball such a fine film is that it works on so many different levels.

It works as a comedy. If you were reading the script, you might not laugh once. Here are just a few lines from the movie, out of context ...

You gotta carry the 1.

You want this door closed?

I added the please at the end.

I know it's a metaphor.

I'm not saying those lines got huge laughs from the audience. But they got knowing chuckles in the press screening, and more from the slightly less sophisticated (or, if you prefer, jaded) audience in the theater Friday night. There were other moments like those. When the filmmakers go for laughs, they get them. And they're not cheap laughs. They're earned by the situations and the characters and the timing and the words. Hey, I love Talladega Nights and Anchorman as much as anyone. But there's still a place for brilliantly scripted comedy, too.

The movie also works as a drama, in the sense that we care about these people.

Okay, the truth is that we care about one person: Billy Beane.

But that's enough. Because "Billy Beane" is an incredibly compelling character.

More compelling than he was in the book, even.

The Billy Beane in the book swears with some great enthusiasm and frequency. The Billy Beane in the movie does not. The Billy Beane in the book seems to have little interest in anything but winning. The Billy Beane in the movie is a devoted father. This was a smart tradeoff. For one thing, I suspect it made the Billy Beane in real life exceptionally happy. The real Billy wished the more sensitive, loving aspects of his personality had showed up in the book.

Well, now they're here and a lot more people will see the movie than read the book.

Rob Neyer: "Moneyball and Me"

What most fans of Field of Dreams seem to love about that movie, more than anything, is the father-son stuff. I found the father-daughter stuff in Moneyball -- none of which is in the book -- far more compelling, because it seems far more real.

One of my favorite moments in the film happens shortly after my least-favorite moment in the film.

First, Billy shows up at his ex-wife's home, to collect his daughter Casey for an outing. Casey's not home, so Billy's stuck in an awkward conversation with his ex-wife and her new mate, played by Spike Jonze. The Jonze character is played with an extreme effeminacy, which I found both unnecessary and terribly distracting.*

* There is one other terribly false note in the movie, which pains me to mention because I have admired Philip Seymour Hoffman's work for so long. But he is terribly miscast as Art Howe, and I cringed through almost every scene in which Hoffman appears. The movie works so hard at verisimilitude elsewhere, but among the few character roles for which Hoffman is obviously ill-suited, "lifetime baseball man" is certainly one.

We cut straight from that scene to a music store, in which Billy and Casey are looking at guitars. Of course this wasn't in the book. But it works. Billy Beane needs to be humanized, and the scene humanizes him in about three minutes. It's bravura filmmaking, in its sublety.

There's another thing at the very end, and if you haven't seen the movie yet you might want to skip these next few grafs ... Billy has been given an exceptionally generous offer to leave the Athletics and run the Boston Red Sox. As you no doubt remember, this absolutely did happen. What's not in the movie is that Billy actually did accept that offer. Only to change his mind a few days later. In the movie, he's still considering the offer while driving his pickup truck -- there's a lot of pickup-truck driving in the movie -- and pops into the CD player a disc Casey has given him. In the music-store scene, she'd played a bit of a song on a guitar and hummed along. Billy asked her if she might someday sing to him. She says she might.

Anyway, he pops in the disc. First Casey tells him that she hopes he doesn't take the Red Sox job, but that he's been a good dad. Then she sings a song. This song. It's a good song, and Casey sings it well. But there's a twist. In the real song, there's this bit of lyric at the end:

I want my money back
I want my money back
I want my money back
Just enjoy the show

Except Casey sings her own version:

You're such a loser, Dad
You're such a loser, Dad
You're such a loser, Dad
Just enjoy the show

In professional sports, there's no epithet worse than loser ... but of course, in this context -- the context of a loving relationship within a movie that's less about winning than thinking -- it's not an epithet at all. It's a term of endearment, a message of love from a daughter to her father and also from the filmmakers to us ... It doesn't matter if the A's didn't win the World Series. It didn't matter if Billy Beane was, and still is, a "loser" according to the traditional standard. He's a winner because he fought the good fight and because his daughter loves him enough to sing him a song, and tease him.

It works as a baseball movie, too.

Jeff Passan's an outstanding writer, one with whom I agree about almost everything. Except then he went and wrote this piece about Moneyball, with which I disagree about almost everything. Passan's big finish:

"Moneyball" tries to make us care that Beane's master plan -- the one that in reality started years earlier -- climaxed as the A's won their 20th consecutive game in dramatic fashion. And some might. Movie critics seem to enjoy it. Pitt's presence dominates the screen. It's just not a very good baseball movie.

They don't make those anymore.

Honestly, I don't have any idea what in the hell he's talking about. Passan lists the following among "baseball movies" he admires:

Field of Dreams
Major League
Bull Durham
The Bad News Bears
The Natural
Bang the Drum Slowly
Pride of the Yankees
A League of Their Own
Eight Men Out
The Sandlot

I admire some of those quite a lot, and some I don't. But does Passan seriously mean to suggest that Moneyball can't comfortably take its place among them? He does have his reasons, but apparently I'm not smart enough to understand them. You should read his piece; maybe you can explain it to me.

It's really too early for me to do this, but at the moment I would rank my favorite baseball-related movies like this:

1. Bull Durham
2. Moneyball
3. The Natural
4. The Bad News Bears
5. Eight Men Out
6. Sugar

See what I did there? I didn't say these are my favorite baseball movies. Is Bull Durham really about baseball, per se? Or is it about sex and love and experience and failure and life, with baseball serving as a delightful backdrop? I will argue that if it were really a baseball movie, Ron Shelton would have found someone for the role of Nuke LaLoosh who could actually throw a baseball.

The Natural? Temptation and redemption (and yes, baseball). Field of Dreams? I don't care for it, but either way it's hardly a baseball movie. It's about fathers and sons and dreams and faith and (again) redemption.

I've read a lot of reviews written by baseball writers, which is great except most of them (including me, of course) don't know a damned thing about the movies. The most perceptive review I've read is Manohla Dargis's in The New York Times:

Mr. Miller, largely shaking off the official art-house pretensions of his breakout feature, "Capote," takes all this seemingly dry, dusty, inside-baseball stuff and turns it into the kind of all-too-rare pleasurable Hollywood diversion that gives you a contact high. He still has his serious, or rather too-serious, side: he bookends the story with ophthalmologically close shots of Billy’s eyes shining in the dark, as if soliciting you to peep into the windows of a soul that, as much as any man’s or woman’s can be revealed, emerges through the script and Mr. Pitt’s fully inhabited, appealingly barbed performance. There are some overhead shots of the A’s emerald field too, including one of a large American flag being unfurled, that feel like the efforts of a director needlessly looking for big symbolic moments, perhaps particularly post-Sept. 11.

That last bit, I have to mention, seems the opposite of perceptive. That "large American flag being unfurled"? By the actual standards of such things, it's actually a tiny American flag, the point being that the A's were too poor to afford anything suitably large. That's the way I read it, anyway. It was a subtle thing, though, and I might be wrong.

That bit about the movie giving us a "contact high," though? That's dead on. Groundhog Day was like that. Some movies aspire to being a "feel-good hit," but director Bennett Miller and his collaborators are going for something else entirely. They're not nearly as interested in making you feel good, as in making you feel smart.

I don't know about you, but I know which of those I prefer for my $10.50 at the local movie house.

Getting back to Passan's critique for a moment ... This is as baseball a baseball movie as I've seen in a long, long time. With one exception, the baseball players are played by actual baseball players. The film was shot in real baseball stadiums, in real locker rooms, in real Oakland Coliseum offices, etc. There are real pages from real Bill James Baseball Abstracts, and real footage of Kevin Youkilis and Jeremy Brown in the minor leagues.

These Questions 3: Michael Lewis

What struck me, as much as anything, was how much baseball is packed in there. And always to good effect. The Jeremy Brown footage isn't gratuitous; it connects us to the A's draft strategy -- which otherwise isn't mentioned at all -- and it also sets up one of the lovelier exchanges between Billy Beane and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill as a nerdy version of Paul DePodesta). The screenwriters took nearly all of the high points of Michael Lewis's book, threw them at a refrigerator like a bunch of word magnets, then reassembled them into a fantastic script.

Which is to say, they did what everyone said couldn't be done.

They had some help, of course. Particularly from the director and the editor.

I know another baseball writer who liked the movie, but thought it was too long.

I think it was too short. I would have cut the Spike Jonze scene, but otherwise I wouldn't cut a single second. I agree with my mom: I would have watched another hour and I hope there's a longer director's cut. One of the reasons the movie might seem long is that it's punctuated by silences. When you see it, or when you see it again, try to notice how often the silences stretch longer than you're used to hearing in Hollywood movies (let alone TV programs).

Could the director and the editor have cut five or 10 minutes? Easily.

Would the film be as affecting if they had? Hardly.

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