Friday, June 17, 2011

Good heavens, but the Moneyball movie looks like garbage

By Bill

I think this is the first time I've ever embedded a video on this blog. Here's the just-released, two-and-a-half minute trailer for the forthcoming film version of Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman and written by the excellent Aaron Sorkin:

Go ahead, soak it in. You've read the book, you remember the book, and if you're of a certain age or came to the sabermetricians' party at a certain time, the book probably changed your baseball-watching life. Watch that a couple times and see if that looks like the book to you. Or like a movie that you'd ever want to watch.

I've been...not excited, necessarily, but very interested in this movie for a while now. So when I saw that the trailer was made available yesterday, I was pretty stoked. And then when I watched it and saw that the movie looks like a steaming pile of fabricated crap, I was...a bit disappointed.

Moneyball, the movie, has been a closely-followed story among film and baseball addicts since about 2008. When it first came to public notice, it was to be directed by Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, all those Ocean's movies, etc., etc.). It struck people as incredibly odd fodder for a film, and especially a Soderbergh film, and all sorts of weird rumors about the style and genre of the film started surfacing (one of them featuring, I believe, a dream sequence with a cartoon representation of Bill James). Days before Soderbergh was to begin shooting, the studio pulled the plug, finding his rewrite of the script to be just too damned odd. The project was assumed dead, but then they brought Alan Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, creator of The West Wing and the best television comedy in history, Sports Night) in to rewrite the script again, added the likes of Hill and Hoffman, and just plugged right along.

All the while (when it looked like the movie would actually be made, anyway), I was cautiously optimistic. Like most people who read and loved the book, I just couldn't see how they figured to make it into a movie. The draw of the book, after all, was the practical baseball ideas it conveyed; the narrative arc, such as it was, was a pretty flat one. But, the names that have been connected to this from the beginning have been good names. I figured that to pull in guys like Pitt and Soderbergh and Sorkin, they must have been able to come up with some way to make it interesting to an audience bigger than the handful of people who just really wanted to read the book but couldn't find the time.

And having seen the trailer, and watched it several times actually, it's hard for me to see how this is going to appeal to any audience at all, aside from the small crowd of sheep who will see anything a star like Brad Pitt is in. Here's what worries me about it, in roughly chronological trailer order:

The intro basically announces: "nothing to see here, folks!"
0:03-0:22: Brad Pitt, looking very much like Brad Pitt and maybe just a tiny bit like Billy Beane, says: "There are rich teams, and there are poor teams. ...Then there's fifty feet of crap, and then there's us." Beane may well have said exactly that for all I know (I no longer have my copy of the book, and I can't pretend I'd bother checking if I did), but opening the trailer with that wildly inaccurate and misleading line (they were a poor team, to be sure, but never the poorest, and certainly not the poorest by the huge margin suggested) sends one very clear message: this is just a typical sports underdog movie. We're down and out! We got no shot, coach! This is then driven home with two more references to the cheapness: a new A (David Justice, I think) marvels that the soda in the clubhouse vending machine isn't free; Beane demands more money of the owner, and is rejected.

And, 0:22: Pitt pouts and turns over his desk. Of course. He's the coach in this movie (and in the book, Art Howe was very much a patsy, so Beane is kind of a coach figure), and in sports movies, the coach always gets mad and throws things and thinks things are hopeless at the beginning. Otherwise, how would we ever know there's a problem to be solved?

(Again: maybe Beane really did throw things and turn his desk over. It's the making that a focal point of the trailer that's worrisome.)

Brad Pitt plays Beane, in the trailer scenes, a lot like Eric Taylor.
I've only watched the first season (and probably not all of that, come to think of it) of Friday Night Lights, so I apologize for the crudity of this analogy, but that's all I could think of as I watched this trailer. Dillon High School's head coach, Eric Taylor (played by Kyle Chandler), kind of stumbles through the first season (at least) in a bit of a pensive daze, often paralyzed with indecision, constantly worried about his job, his kids, the decisions he has to make, and on and on. That's not a knock on the show or the actor, it's just who the character is (or was, in the first season), and Chandler does it well.

That's not at all who the Billy Beane in the book Moneyball was, though, and yet that's all I see when I look at Pitt here. The desk-flipping (and later, chair-throwing) aside, Pitt rarely looks comfortable, and often looks worried. He even seems to speak in a bit of a southern accent (Beane was born in Orlando and grew up in San Diego), and there's even a discussion with his young daughter about his job; if they'd stuck that little bit in the first few episodes of Friday Night Lights, you'd notice the daughter seemed a bit young, but otherwise it would fit right in. It's almost like Pitt is playing Eric Taylor as portrayed by Chandler, who in turn is playing a character named Billy Beane who bears some resemblance to the Beane portrayed in the book. (Unclear when that little talk with his daughter would've happened, by the way; the 2002 A's bottomed out at 20-26 on May 23 -- after winning 102 the year before -- and then went 83-33 the rest of the way.)

Hoffman is basically in it not at all.
As I said above, A's manager Art Howe was portrayed in Michael Lewis' book as kind of a non-entity. Beane viewed his managers pretty much as peacekeepers, as there was very little managing necessary in early-aughts A's baseball; bunts and steal attempts were bad, so Howe just had to stand there and look Old Baseball-y. So hiring a decorated actor like Hoffman to play the part struck me as kind of strange. He's one of my favorite actors, though, so I was intrigued.

In the entire two and a half minute trailer, Howe/Hoffman might be on the screen for a couple seconds. We really need to see the reactions of people like Howe, or else it's just Billy against the big bad skeptics and dehumanized baseball establishment, and that's just no fun at all. There's a lot more movie in the can that might show us that, of course, but his absence from the trailer is a bit concerning.

And finally, the most baffling and potentially worst thing about it all:

Paul DePodesta. I mean Peter Brand. I mean, Peter Brand?
I should have suspected something a little over a year ago, when it became public knowledge that former assistant GM and Moneyball superstar Paul DePodesta had revoked his permission for the film to use his identity. (And I probably did suspect something, and just forgot between then and now.)

DePodesta, who wears glasses and all that, is also slim and athletic, having played both baseball and football at Harvard. Jonah Hill is, well, Jonah Hill; one of my favorite current comedic actors, but none of those other things I just said about DePo, and seemed much better suited to play a caricature of the kind of guy the anti-stats crowd (particularly Dodger fans ca. 2005) liked to think DePo was than to play DePo himself. And indeed, DePodesta withdrew from the project because he didn't agree with the way he was being portrayed.

So we get this "fictional" character, Peter Brand, played by Hill. And from the 45 seconds or so of the trailer of which he is a part, yep, he pretty much looks like the caricature of a baseball nerd. It's not that Hill plays the part -- again, I like the guy, though it doesn't help that he doesn't much look like a kid that might have played sports in college -- but that the part itself apparently called for a single-minded wallflower to whom "socially awkward" is just not strong enough a term, one who might actually literally live in his mother's basement, who blurts out that his job with the A's is not just his first baseball job, but his first job (DePo, by contrast, was 29, in his sixth year and second job in the game). At least they divvied up the cliches a little bit; Brand does in fact "watch the games," and it's Billy Beane who doesn't bother with those (a largely accurate detail, but the way it's portrayed in the movie seems a bit misleading).

This gets to the bottom of my main problem with the trailer, and that is that it seems to remove all the nuance from the story (such as it is); it's the underdog vs. the rich guys, the geeks vs. the jocks. And really, who wants to see that, again? Will the guys trying to put together a group to play a kids' game for a paltry $40 million be able to beat the guys who are doing it with $140 million? Will the brash and cocky dorks triumph over the older gentlemen who have given their lives to the more traditional understanding of the game? These are just not interesting questions to movie audiences, and in fictionalized form, they're not even interesting to me.

Now, this cast and crew -- writer Sorkin, in particular -- is just too good for this. So I have to hang on to the hope that it's just a bad trailer, not a bad movie, and that there's a lot more nuance and intrigue in store for us than the surface-level nonsense that's suggested by Brad Pitt's pouting and yelling at old guys. But whatever -- it's a really bad trailer.

And the worst part? I know I'm going to have to see it regardless. It could get panned by everyone, 0% on Rotten Tomatoes...and I'll be there, because, I mean, come on, it's Moneyball in a movie theater. That's just a much gloomier prospect than it felt like it was yesterday morning.


Anonymous said...

I had to quit watching the trailer once Jonah Hill showed up and they started showing the montage of "misfit players".

They've basically rebooted Major League, but swapped out Cleveland with the A's.

Also, I'm pretty sure that's Bobby Kotick (CEO of Activision) playing the owner of the A's. And if you know anything about Kotick, you'll laugh at the thought of him basically playing himself in this film.

But hey, if there's a chance we get to relive the 02 Twins beating Oakland in the playoffs again, that'd be awesome. Unless they decide to rewrite that part.

Anonymous said...

I liked it. Underdogs, baseball, what's not to like.

Mark Hennessy said...

You basically answer your own questions about the movie. There's no way that Hollywood (as opposed to smaller, more independent Hollywood) would bankroll an accurate adaptation of "Moneyball" as written. It wouldn't work as a linear, beginning-middle-end type of story. Which Hollywood needs to deliver.

BUT, the trailer includes the kind of information that even lots and lots of baseball fans still bristle about: the importance of getting on base; runs; a new way of looking at the game. The fact that the producers are letting you in on that kind of statistical geekiness (as it is most often perceived) also tells you how important it is to the narrative (if not, almost certainly, dumbed down for easy digestion). If that message reaches fans, new or old, the movie still succeeds in trying to disseminate some of the core ideas of the book.

As to who wants to watch another underdog sports movie? Everyone. Even women I've known who hate sports, love sports movies. It's ingrained in the fabric of America. The loser who wins. You may be tired of it, and let's face it, it is simply the same story told over and over again, but in general, most people aren't. I'm not, and I wager I've seen almost every movie of that ilk that might ever have been made. Ok, perhaps that's slight hyperbole.

The key is how well the movie is made. With big stars and a writer who I feel is among the greatest storytellers of our time, who also uses language in a way that just thrills my ears (so to speak), there is a chance that this movie reaches a lot of people. There is a chance that this is a very well done "underdogs win the day" type movie that also includes some very basic, but very good, information about baseball that might further the understanding of the intricacies of the game to more people.

I'm all for that.

On another completely unrelated point...Friday Night Lights. One of the best television shows of my lifetime, and probably the best ever that revolves around sports (apologies to the short-lived Sorkin comedy Sports Night). I just thought that given your recap of season one, you and I saw different shows to some extent. And how you only watched one and not the others is a mystery to me. But the fact that it has never drawn a large audience is even more mysterious.

Bill said...

It's not so much whether or not people want to see another underdog sports movie, but whether they want to see one where the problem to be surmounted is that these multi-millionaires are slightly less wealthy than some other multi-millionaires. I don't see that being terribly compelling.

I also think you're seriously overstating the extent to which people do still enjoy those underdog sports movies. I can't think of the last one that was particularly successful and/or beloved. Major League mentioned above, Bad News Bears, etc., all 20+ years ago. These movies are still being made, and with the exceptions of some of the Will Ferrell screwball films that are mocking the genre more than emulating it, and Miracle, which had an obvious draw this one lacks, not many people are watching them.

Anonymous said...

I think your being way to cynical here. The book is about a guy that gets a bunch of 'misfits' together to wins some baseball games. I think the trailer shows exactly that. My only hope is that movie focuses more on the 'why Oakland won' as opposed to just being a feel good baseball story where a bunch of screwballs make good.

JMcG said...

I'll just say that judging a movie by its trailer is always a really bad idea and leave it at that.

Bill said...

Judging the trailer, not the movie. But thanks for dropping by!

Anonymous said...

I don't get what the people that gripe about this were really expecting. I'm excited for it. I expect to be entertained for 90 minutes, which is what I want from movies.

If I wanted by the book adaptations, I would never watch movies based on books.

BTW, Beane is pretty renowned for throwing stuff, it's even mentioned in the book.

I dunno, it just seems like the snobby baseball/movie fan thing to do is rip this to shreds just because "you're supposed to" and I don't see the point.

If you're this put off by the trailer, your expectations may've been misguided from the outset.

I don't know who was really struck by the book as "odd fodder for a film" considering The Blind Side was the football Moneyball and just a gazillion dollars & won some Oscars.

Again, it was never going to be a page-by-page literal translation, just as Blindside wasn't nor is any book into a movie.

A movie about Facebook had even less to go off of than this and that movie was fantastic so I think this can succeed as well. It has good actors, a great, great writer and a strong story. It should be a fun, entertaining film which is all it needs to be.

I dunno, man, I think you should just try to enjoy it & accept it for what it is.