Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Moneyball" and Brad Pitt: Thinking Outside The Box

Dexter on the Moneyball set
with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill

      Brad Pitt has been compared to Robert Redford for years, but in Moneyball, hopefully people will see that he’s the new Paul Newman.  He’s confident yet uncertain, smart but with a common touch, and progressive but rooted in traditional values when the chips are down.  Like George Clooney in Michael Clayton, where he proved himself to be the new Robert Mitchum, rather than the Cary Grant some thought, he gives a contemporary version of
star acting.  You don’t see him ‘acting’ (so he probably won’t win, though he should be in the running for awards), but in the quietest moments, especially the tight close-ups in moving vehicles, he is physically still but he reveals multiple layers of his character.  Pitt has always been cool, but he hasn’t been cold and he will do anything to avoid questions about his looks or his presence.  These attributes are true for Newman, but not so much so of Redford.  Like both his forebears, Pitt has placed extraordinary resources into helping others.  This is also true of Clooney.  They really are the new ‘buddies’ (like Newman and Redford or Hope and Crosby of an earlier generation).  

      Moneyball is also a buddy picture, except his buddy in this film is his protégé played by Jonah Hill.  Like Newman, Pitt is actually stronger playing a maverick whether as a buddy or colleague (Se7en with Morgan Freeman, the Ocean’s series with George Clooney) or leader (Inglourious Basterds) than he is in romantic roles (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Mr. and Mrs. North) because he doesn’t seem to have as much fun in them.  Moneyball depends on a very strong script based on Michael Lewis’s influential 2003 books and written in various drafts by Stan Chervan, Aaron Sorkin, and Steve Zaillian. With writers of this caliber, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this works so well, but it’s seamless in terms of incorporating Billy Beane’s (General Manager for the losing Oakland A's) memories of his lackluster playing career with the very unpopular commitment he makes to think outside the box to put together a better team at fire sale prices.  Bennett Miller directs with a clear narrative through line especially with the backstory cutaways and he demonstrates again (as in Capote for which he was Oscar-nominated) that he is able to take the viewer into the middle of a milieu and able to gauge the rules of that group, though he reveals them subtly and without initial bias.  In Capote, the viewer thought that Capote would be treated as a freak in Kansas, but this turned out to be shallow yet not completely untrue.  His ambition broke him professionally and also his New York friendships.  Billy Beane throws out the whole intuitive playbook on player selection with sabermetrics – an economics approach based on statistics that I thought would dovetail with the almost fetishistic obsession with numbers for baseball fans – and although we might root for Beane because he’s played by the star (and also producer), there’s nothing to say that the approach will succeed.  The grizzled, tough old scouts might seem funny for displaying several levels of objection, but their trepidation is warranted.  

      This fear of the unknown and worship of the status quo coupled with the idiosyncratic way in which management works in baseball, i.e. the General Manager hires personnel, but is neither responsible for the players’ lineup nor their coaching, is at the mercy of the owner and the manager.  This is an apt metaphor for the federal executive branch having to deal with the legislative branch in terms of the federal budget and the current stalemate.  It’s not only a highly entertaining movie, even for those of us who couldn’t give a hoot about baseball, but also seriously relevant.  It’s never explicit about this, but the audience members with whom we saw it were silent as they left.  They also looked as if they’d seen a number of baseball games and were cognizant with the federal budget debate.  There was a feeling that if Billy Beane can follow through on such an unorthodox approach to a greater degree of success than the traditional one, what might happen if our leaders had the guts to commit?  Jonah Hill finally gets to play an adult as Peter Brand, the Economics major who proposes the theory, and he is a wonderful complement to Pitt because of his looks, temperament, and age.  I hope he can go back to more obviously comic roles in the future, but it’s a pleasure to watch him reach inward in this movie.

      Although it reminded me of Slap Shot, the raunchy and hilarious examination of minor league ice hockey starring Paul Newman that also touched on the quiet desperation of a middle-aged man’s sense of desperation, it’s a family film at heart.  There isn’t violence or sex or foul language and one of its primary concerns is family – not the old chestnut about the baseball team as a big surrogate family, but the generations of a family dealing with professional success or lack thereof.  It’s a winner.

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