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Today’s Column: How Moneyball the Movie Became the Opposite of Moneyball the Concept

By / 09.28.11

Opinions: I Haz Them. Today’s Topic: The story of how in real life, Hollywood told Billy Beane to go f*ck himself.

I wish I could get straight to my point here, the way Moneyball the movie became the opposite of Moneyball the concept, without first explaining why Moneyball isn’t a good movie. But seeing as how it’s currently tracking 94% recommended on RottenTomatoes, it looks like I owe it some time. So here goes.

At best, Moneyball is inoffensive. It’s one of those movies that’s great at looking like an important movie without coming close to ever being one. It has the trappings of a good movie. It’s a stuffed shirt. It’s Ryan Seacrest, a news anchor you listen to because he’s wearing a suit.

Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane isn’t a character so much as a collection of quirks. He’s always chewing and spitting and pursing his lips, and sometimes he gets mad and throws stuff. He’s stressed, get it? Mainly, he’s a handsome delivery vehicle for expository ideas from the book who never actually connects with any of the other characters (not that I blame Pitt, I normally love him). That’s the problem with Moneyball, the only compelling parts are direct exposition of the moneyball concept from the book, and everything else is cutesy Hollywood bullsh*t.

I realize that’s a loaded phrase, so allow me to unpack it for you.

The first chapter of the book deals with Billy Beane converting Scott Hatteburg from a catcher to a first baseman. The A’s wanted him because he had a high on-base percentage, and knew they could get him for a bargain, because at that time, he was a catcher who couldn’t throw because of an elbow surgery, and what good is a catcher who can’t throw? So anyway, the movie depicts this thusly: Scott Hatteburg (as played by Chris Pratt from Parks and Rec) sits at home watching the phone. He finally gets a call, and it’s Billy Beane. “Hey Scott, it’s Billy Beane from the Oakland A’s. I want you to come play for us.”

“What?”

“Yeah, I want you to come play for us, but first I have to talk to you about something. Could you let us in?”

“What?”

“Let us in, we’re standing outside.”

Get it? Billy Beane is such a quirky maverick that he just travels across the country and shows up at people’s houses without calling first. And as the busy GM of a professional baseball team, it totally makes sense for him to spend that much time wooing a guy you just told us was a washed-up player no one else wanted anyway. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. But even if you buy that premise, the scene doesn’t tell us anything about these guys. Its entire purpose is to be this fake-quirky moment of surprise that we liked the first hundred times we saw it in a movie and presumably will again. “Hollywood Bullsh*t”: moments borrowed from other movies placed into a context in which they don’t make sense.

Okay, one more example. In the movie, Billy Beane’s one personal relationship outside of baseball is with his daughter, whom he loves deeply. Which we know because they illustrate it in the hokiest ways possible. For instance, in one father-daughter outing (the only father-daughter outing in the movie), Billy Beane Pitt takes his little girl to a guitar store where she plays a song she wrote while humming. Beane encourages her to sing! Don’t just hum. But dad, right here in the middle of the story? That’s weird.

And it is weird. What is he, some creepy stage parent? This interaction does not exist in nature. But ignoring that fact, she plays the song, and of course she has a beautiful voice, and Brad Pitt gets teary, and everyone’s supposed be all heartwarmed and sh*t. And this illustrates an important point about… uh… something. Believing in yourself? I don’t know. What I do know is that the song Billy Beane’s daughter said she wrote sounds awful familiar. Oh right, IT’S THE SONG FROM A F*CKING OLD NAVY COMMERCIAL! Plagiarist! That’s right, you can only buy this supposedly tender, totally contrived show of father-daughter bonding if you pretend not to notice that the girl is singing her dad a song from a goddamned jeans commercial.

Anyway, the movie. Not good. Call it a C.

The only thing interesting thing about it is the story, how Billy Beane and his assistant GM Paul DePodesta, a Harvard economics major (fictionalized as “Peter Brand” – Jonah Hill – in the movie, a Yale economics major, because DePodesta didn’t want to be involved), implemented sabremetrics to help them build a winning baseball team with a losing budget. They basically put their jobs on the line in doing so, because their ideas flew in the face of conventional wisdom and challenged the status quo, the old-line baseball scouts. Their strategy was redeemed (or so the story goes) when the A’s, with one of the lowest budgets in baseball, broke the record for longest winning streak in AL history in 2002.

Business dorks might call it “a triumph of thinking outside the box.” And the funny thing is, that’s exactly what happened with the movie. …Only the exact opposite. In real life, Hollywood told Billy Beane to go f*ck himself.

See, back in June 2009, Steven Soderbergh had the idea to shoot this researched-based, non-fiction book in an improvisational, documentary style, recreating scenes from the book using the real people involved as actors, rather than doing the usual, Blind Side/Social Network fictionalized hokeyness.

That was too scary for Sony chief Amy Pascal, so she shut it down three days before it was supposed to begin filming. She let Soderbergh and his creative team shop it to other studios to see if anyone wanted it, but no one did. Too scary. Too risky. Not enough past examples from which to draw, not enough focus group data.

So they hired Aaron Sorkin to rewrite it, he wrote the movie everyone expected, and they got a boring movie that boring people liked, in a sort of lukewarm way.

And thus it came to be that Moneyball the concept, a triumph of thinking outside the box, became Moneyball the movie, a minor victory for conventional thinking.


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