There are sooo many good baseball movies, “The Natural” and “Major League” being among my favorites. There also are sooo many bad baseball movies, “Fever Pitch” taking the cake there.
“Moneyball,” the new Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill flick, falls somewhere in between, though probably closer to “Bull Durham” than “BASEketball” in terms of watchability.
The key for hard-core baseball fans preparing to see this movie: DO NOT expect this to be a 100-percent true tale of how whiz-kid general manager Billy Beane turned the Oakland Athletics into perennial contenders despite the budget of a neighborhood thrift store.
For starters, no, the A’s weren’t so poor that David Justice and Co. had to pay a buck just to get a Pepsi out of the clubhouse vending machine. And, in turn, no, Beane didn’t really ask Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski to stock his pop machine for three years as part of the Carlos Pena deal in 2002.
(Kudos to Dombrowski for getting a couple mentions in the movie.)
Tigers fans, though, will realize that while the movie accurately reflects some moves — the dumping of Jeremy Giambi and the trade for Ricardo Rincon — it’s off on how the Pena deal went down. The movie makes it a two-team trade in mid-May designed to shake up the A’s roster; in reality, of course, it was an early July blockbuster that also involved the Yankees sending Ted Lilly to the A’s.
The movie also makes a villain out of A’s manager Art Howe, suggesting he pouted over a lack of a contract extension, and he refused Beane’s orders to play on-base machine Scott Hatteberg over the prized rookie Pena at first base. I suppose all movies need a bad guy, though Howe, himself, wasn’t impressed.
Here’s his review, as told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“They couldn’t have demeaned me more. It’s disgusting. I’m hurt by it. My reputation is altered by it. People who don’t know me are going to think that’s the real Art Howe.”
Aside from a bit of Hollywood-ization, however, the movie is solid. Pitt convincingly plays Beane, the one-time prized prospect (and one-time Tiger) who never made it in the major leagues, but is competitive enough to refuse to fail at his latest venture, the front-office chief of a MLB ballclub.
Pitt is funny, witty and cocky, often in one scene — in a quick, amusing one, he’s using multiple phone calls (and multiple phones) to pull off a trade-deadline deal.
Hill, meanwhile, plays Peter Brand, a made-up name for the guy who he’s really portraying, Paul DePodesta. This is a odd role for Hill, who’s known for outlandish roles, like the one in “Superbad.” He tones it down a lot in “Moneyball,” in which he’s the right-hand man who turns Beane onto the concept that on-base percentage, among other deep stats, is an important factor that few baseball folks look at.
Hill, no surprise, provides most of the movie’s funny moments, nailing his character’s awkward, nervous, short one-liners. Aside from one classic scene when a handful of old-time A’s scouts around sitting around Beane giving their reports on prospective players — using such indicators as a girlfriend’s attractiveness — Hill provides the film’s laugh track.
Philip Seymour-Hoffman also plays the perfect Howe, even if it’s not really based in reality.
The movie, directed by Bennett Miller (hired after Steven Soderbergh dropped out), keeps the focus mostly on the field and the A’s clubhouse, but it does include a few — too many, I say — flashbacks to Beane’s rise and fill as a professional baseball player, as well as a lot on Beane’s close relationship with his young daughter, Casey. Some of those scenes make the movie feel every bit of the 133 minutes that it is.
Of the baseball players, Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), Justice (Stephen Bishop), Giambi (Nick Porrazzo) and reliever Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) are the central focus, as “Moneyball” plays up the rag-tag-bunch-does-good angle.
Everybody loves an underdog. That’s, no doubt, why the production team played down the fact the 2002 Oakland A’s actually had some star power, too. They did, after all, have that year’s MVP, shortstop Miguel Tejada, who’s barely mentioned or shown in the movie. The only scene I remember Royce Clayton (the former major leaguer who played Tejada) being prominent in was the soda machine one, where he’s telling a confused Justice, “Welcome to Oakland.”
Those A’s also had power-hitting third baseman Eric Chavez, as well as a stud rotation of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. We see little of any of them.
That’s one of several spots the “Based on a true story” tagline is into play.
But “Moneyball” had to appeal to a broad audience, not just baseball enthusiasts. Pitt, certainly, helps accomplish that. So do the off-field scenes. And the underdog story line. As well as the fact the movie doesn’t get bogged down in deep-stat language and mumbo jumbo; that, particularly, would’ve killed its box-office rake.
And because of those production decisions, baseball fans and otherwise will find “Moneyball” entertaining — if not a home run.
For more on “Moneyball,” here’s Detroit News film critic Tom Long’s review.