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Ten Word or Less Review: Money snore.

Like a fastball thrown from the hand of a big league pitcher who makes $20 million, Moneyball has come barreling down the center of the plate to become a critical darling as we inch closer to cinematic awards season.  Oscar nominations seem assured, critics are drooling and an audience stands primed to check out all the fuss.  What they stand to experience is no less than one of the most trivial and minor movies of the year.  Drawn out, snail paced and dramatically tiny, Moneyball makes an actual baseball game feel like a rush of adrenaline.

Based on a true story, Brad Pitt plays Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Bean.  After a strong season with up and coming players, The A’s get gutted because of free agency and are back to square one with nowhere to go.  This kind of situation plagues baseball.  Facing a season(s) of unending doldrums due to lack of big money, Bean lucks into meeting intellectual wallflower Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).  Brand believes that baseball’s system of how to value players is misguided and by utilizing certain mathematical formulas, Brand is an economics major, a player’s true value can be determined.  Using this controversial system, Bean and Brand build a team of the undervalued and unappreciated.  They cause a stir in the baseball world, traditionalists and old timers get heated about the cold shoulder they show towards baseball’s tried and true methods, but eventually the A’s start to win, a lot.  But this is not The Bad News Bears with brains.

It was just a year ago that people wondered aloud how anyone could make a compelling movie about Facebook and now a similar question looms over Moneyball.  How do you make a movie about a couple of guys who put together a baseball team based on math equations?  Directed by Bennett Miller (Capote), Moneyball is saddled with a story that’s more fitting of a wikipedia entry than dramatic narrative.  Die hard fans of baseball and sports statistics may have a stimulating occasion watching Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill talk about on base percentage, but those of us looking for a compelling story arc are left to watch the equivalent of nine guys run on the field with no ball to play with.  Miller’s film is even tempered to a fault, afraid to raise its pulse even the slightest and in desperate need of some editorial tightening.  Too many scenes feel too long by a beat and Moneyball could lose 15 minutes and never miss a step.  A subtle arrangement of music keeps hinting at a slow build but nothing breaks out.  Miller constructs a movie that thinks an actual dramatic moment might cause itself to implode.

Pitt almost makes it worth watching but that may be because he’s the only fleshed out character for us to invest in.  He has become a leading man of considerable skill and deftness and it’s a testament to his abilities that he almost makes Moneyball an engrossing solo act.  Jonah Hill wisely steps away from the role of obnoxious slob to play something down to earth, but Hill’s Brand is a passive presence.  He’s quiet, nerdy, unassuming and director Miller, along with his notable screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, don’t make him more than an egghead who accidentally rattles a very large cage.  Like the film itself he’s passive to a fault.  I couldn’t even be sure that Brand even liked baseball.

Where Moneyball really starts to morph from dull to outright dishonest is in its final stretch.  Bean and Brand’s system failed to net a championship and Moneyball does acknowledge this.  Their experiment changed baseball to some extent but it didn’t work for them and hasn’t worked for anyone else either.  The 2001 A’s performed beyond expectations, culminating in a record 20 game win streak and making the playoffs, but the A’s never won a championship.  They had a streak of good seasons which never resulted in playoff victory and the club, still headed by Beane, is now in the grip of 5 straight seasons of sub .500 baseball.  Moneyball concludes by making the dubious claim that the Red Sox’s legendary World Series win of 2004 was in some part due to the system Bean and Brand developed.  It completely fails to mention that the Red Sox had a payroll of $100 million and that all of it’s stars were paid staggeringly high salaries.  It’s a blaring contradiction to what Moneyball has been trying to say and it feels disingenuous on the filmmakers behalf to sidestep this issue.  No small market team like the A’s has won a World Series in the subsequent decade since this system was developed.  So in essence viewers are stuck watching a movie about a couple of guys who tried a radical experiment which got them nowhere except on the big screen.

In the world of baseball Goliath continues to step on David’s neck.  Though in exchange Goliath keeps David from going bankrupt.  Big money teams still win the World Series by giving the best guys $25 million per year.  Bean and Brand tried to make baseball see past this thinking but couldn’t.  Moneyball is an interesting footnote to baseball history but that’s all it is.  The decision to dramatize this footnote is a curious one and the subsequent appreciation from critics shows that film appreciators can be just as overzealous about something minor and unimportant as Bean and Brand were.

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