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Monday, March 18,2013

Diamonds are a boy's best friend

Brad Pitt leads a winning team in the engaging 'Moneyball'

by James Sanford

You’re the general manager of a baseball team. Three of your most
notable players are leaving at the end of the season and you’ve got to
find replacements. Unfortunately, you don’t have a bottomless well of
money to pay out to potential superstars. What’s your strategy?


Billy Beane, the man in charge of the Oakland Athletics in 2002, elected
not to do the obvious. He could have gone begging for bargain-priced
talent, but instead he opted to think outside the owners box, bringing
in a slate of undervalued candidates instead of committing most of his
financial resources to another trio of expensive big names. It’s all
about sabermetrics, analyzing baseball statistics to determine how to
select team members.


If that doesn’t exactly sound like the springboard for high drama, keep
in mind that “Moneyball” (adapted from Michael Lewis’ 2003 book,
“Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”) was co-written by Steve
Zaillian, who scripted “Schindler’s List,” and Aaron Sorkin, who made
the origins of Facebook fascinating in “The Social Network.” Their
smart, often snappy screenplay is anything but “inside baseball”
mumbo-jumbo: It’s an engaging, smoothly told story of a man who insists
on following through with a seemingly crazy idea, even though he faces
fierce opposition from practically every corner. Instead of celebrating
the sport itself, Zaillian and Sorkin spend the majority of their time
peeking behind the curtains, eavesdropping on what goes into assembling
an organization.


As Beane, Brad Pitt once again demonstrates his remarkable ability to
play in two keys simultaneously. This is not a vanity showcase; he
permits director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) to shoot him in unforgiving
lighting that accentuates the lines under his eyes and the light creases
in his face. At the same time, Pitt’s performance is full of life —
watch how he constantly finds opportunities to put surprising twists on
his dialogue, or how he manages to find exactly the right body language
to back up his words — and it crackles with inner fire.


A former player who never quite lived up to his potential, Beane is now
in his mid-40s and mired in a mid-life malaise: He’s divorced, he’s
still eager to maintain a relationship with his young daughter and his
career prospects are questionable. He looks slightly rundown and worn
down, yet he is capable of leaping back to life when he’s trying to nail
down a deal or shut down a detractor.


“This is the new direction of the Oakland As,” Beane declares to his
flabbergasted staff. “We are card-counters at the casino, and we are
gonna turn the odds on the house.”


His self-confidence and determination are both admirable and unnerving
since there’s no telling whether we’re seeing a man who’s on the verge
of taking a giant step forward or a fool about to hurl himself off a
cliff.


Every bit as convincing is Jonah Hill, casting aside his usual bag of
comic tricks to play assistant general manager Peter Brand (a character
based on Beane’s real-life cohort, Paul DePodesta), a numbers man with
an economics degree from Yale and the temperament of a teddy bear. While
Beane is all bluster and bravado, Brand is a guy who always seems
startled whenever someone talks to him. For those who know him from
“Superbad” or “Get Him to the Greek,” it’s a trifle disorienting at
first to see Hill demonstrating so much restraint, but holding back
eventually pays off in a big way: Not only is he quite funny, Hill is
also thoroughly believable as a brainiac with a passion for formulas and
coding.


A sneering, dismissive Philip Seymour Hoffman (who won an Oscar under
Miller’s direction in “Capote”) portrays Beane and Brand’s nemesis, the
inflexible As manager who firmly rejects their system and everything it
stands for. On the whole, the players are not as clearly drawn, although
Chris Pratt is very good as an insecure former catcher who warily
allows Brand and Beane to shape his future.


Although Miller shoehorns plenty of telling details into “Moneyball”
(Beane’s office includes a framed poster from a Clash concert, a case of
Twinkies, a bottle of Listerine and a bingo cage, perhaps to remind him
of the gamble he is taking), he doesn’t undermine the actors while he’s
building atmosphere. Mychael Danna’s diaphanous score floats through
scene after scene, gently underlining the mood without calling too much
attention to itself.


There’s a lot of talk in “Moneyball” (much of it amusing), but the movie
never lets us forget that in a world of cheering crowds, cracking bats
and pump-up-the-fans anthems, sometimes the easiest way to get the
attention is to be completely quiet. Throughout the film, you’re aware
of how strikingly Miller uses the power of silence, whether in the
pregnant pauses that punctuate Beane’s conversation with his ex-wife
(Robin Wright) and her new husband or, especially sharply, in a scene in
which a furious Beane smashes the stereo in the players’ lounge as the
As are unwinding after a defeat.


“Hear that?” Beane says, pointing upward into the noiseless, empty air. “That’s what losing sounds like.” “Moneyball” includes numerous scenes in which barely a sound is heard but, in sharp contrast to what Beane says, many of these moments are among the movie's finest.


This first-rate film constantly reminds us what drives the game behind the game: the field is green, the bases are laid out to resemble a diamond and this is a world in which money talks — or doesn't.    

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