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David Poland

By David Poland

Mini-Review: Moneyball

One of the reasons I love Bennett Miller… he has perspective. He can be odd and he can be a little ornery, but he’s not full of shit.

My instant take on Moneyball, which I was a little anxious about sharing with Sony, lest I be kept from Bennett and/or any other talent on the film in these weeks before release, was that it is a giant movie star giving what would seem to be a giant movie star performance that isn’t really a giant movie star performance at all in a movie that is really made for the arthouse. That doesn’t make it bad… it just makes it wildly unexpected and a marketing challenge for Sony, which is trying to get its money out of it.

And Bennett, to his credit, said as much without being prompted in our DP/30 conversation. Huzzah.

I think Bennett and his entire cast of collaborators, especially the screenwriters, did a bang up job. But truth be told, if Sony was going to let them make a $50 million arthouse movie, why the hell did Soderbergh have to be jettisoned? On some level, I believe that Soderbergh’s approach, which sent the studio (and perhaps Mr. Pitt) into apoplexy days before the start of production, would have made for a “kinkier” film and that it would have fulfilled audience expectations more accurately that this film does. As a result of that, it may well have been more of the awards movie that the studio hoped for as well. Contagion hits $50 million today, on its way to a probable domestic number in the mid-60s, and that was with a horrible release date and iffy marketing angle. I don’t think Moneyball will see the $50m mark domestically, much less a higher number. The great story will be whether the power of Pitt (which is real) overseas can overwhelm the disinterest in the US pastime. Japan could be big.

And with that, I end my discussion of Mr Soderbergh and the firing that should not have happened.

As for Moneyball as it exists…

it’s not a baseball movie, really. It’s not a technical movie. The passions of the film are low key. It’s basically a movie about a guy who was expected to be a golden god with little effort and who failed, at least in his mind. He brings this chip with him on his life’s journey, and in some ways, becomes a really good looking Ahab. Only the taming of Major League Baseball itself, to the greatest degree, can ever satisfy him.

And this is where the rubber meets the arthouse on this film. Honestly, I want to see it again and maybe a third time before I have a definitive opinion of the work. It’s such a subversive take on the sports movie that it may well grow in esteem for me in screening after screening. But for people expecting a great moment of joy after fighting and fighting and fighting to win…. not so much.

Our hero, Billy Beane, is a depressing f-ing guy. Anything less than winning the World Series is not enough to make him feel right. And if you know your baseball history at all, it will be no spoiler for you… Billy is Moses, wandering in the desert, never to see the Holy Land close up. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have great success… success that changes the sport itself… success that others emulate to have the success he so desperately wants to make happen in Oakland.

As a result, the movie leaves the audience with blue balls, much as it leaves its hero. Now, movie critics love getting blue balls (or blue labia)… especially when the film is in a foreign language. But regular audiences? They kinda want their dance number on the train platform after all the bloodshed and loss.

And to Sony’s credit, as well as everyone responsible for what the movie is, that ending wasn’t forced onto this sad saga of success.

The cast is uniformly excellent, though Jonah Hill doesn’t really have enough to do to make him the Oscar bait that some thought he was sure to be. If Pitt is nominated, it will be for being Pitt. He’s perfect in the film, but it’s not the biggest challenge for him, it doesn’t seem to me. He’s a great character actor. Always has been. This is not a crowning moment for him. (He should get a retro-Oscar for True Romance.) Phillip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t get much to do but to have a harsh haircut and be a bit of an asshole.

It’s a good movie. It’s no romp. But it’s a good movie. Given a little breathing room, it may turn out to be a great movie. If you’ve read this far, I would say that it’s a must-see for you. So see it. And then we’ll talk…

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28 Responses to “Mini-Review: Moneyball”

  1. Luke K says:

    David- I agree with your overall assessment but I’m a bit more bullish than you. I love the script and all of the character notes as well as the fact that they gave it (allowed it to have) the closure that it did. I saw it months ago and have had a lot of time to digest it and I truly feel that it is a quality piece of film making with a great job done by Pitt and an equally enjoyable job done by Jonah Hill. I often forget sometimes how nice it is to see a movie star be a movie star and that’s exactly what Pitt is here. Which is weird to type because it’s easy to see Clooney be Clooney or back in the day Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise but this feels very much like that type of role for Pitt and he really hasn’t had many of those in recent years…much to his credit I guess. But overall I would say it is very solid.

  2. David Poland says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you wrote, so maybe we are equally bullish, Luke.

  3. Paul MD (Stella's Boy) says:

    Am I the only one tired of headlines like “A Baseball Movie for People Who Don’t Like Baseball”? Is that really the best, most accurate way to describe Moneyball?

  4. Luke K says:

    Paul- I hear you and I’d say at the very least it’s a great way to broaden the audience from a marketing perspective. Sony wins if they get the fans AND the non fans to come and it won’t turn off the real fans as they are going anyway. Although if I’m being honest I don’t really like baseball all that much anymore and I did really like the movie.

  5. Foamy Squirrel says:

    Better than “A statistics movie for people who don’t like statistics”.

  6. Telemachos says:

    It’s a movie I’ve really been looking forward to, although I haven’t seen it yet (and unfortunately probably won’t for a little while, since I’m dealing with a newborn right now). But it’ll be interesting to see how it does, because it’s getting a HUGE marketing push from all baseball-related entities (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, independent writers, etc)… not so much because they’re caving to Sony, but because most of the baseball world (at least, those who broadcast and write about it), are genuinely interested in the movie and how it deals with its subject. That could potentially be a big boost for it, since not every baseball movie gets as big a presence on the internet and TV. I think it’s fair to say that anyone who’s remotely followed a baseball game in the last few weeks or even checked the box-scores online knows the movie is here, and is generating heavy discussion.

  7. Aj says:

    the first numbers from friday indicate that you are underestimating the public taste (like you did with “Midnight in Paris”).
    THR and Deadline are saying at least 20 million first weekend.
    Then, at least 60 million total (3 times first weekend is the average box office).
    But I’m going with at least 80 million, cause that kind of reviews – 94% in Rotten Tomatoes and 88 % in Metacritic – indicate very good legs, then most than average box office (like The Social Network and Contagion, for example).
    And it’ll probably be one of the best pictures nominees (and Brad Pitt will be nominated for best actor, for this or for The Tree of Life).

  8. David Poland says:

    You’re extrapolating an awful lot from east coast matinees, Aj.

    $20 million is not a surprise to me. I would have estimated at least $18m.

  9. cadavra says:

    It’s not a romp? I disagree. There’s far more humor in this film than there would have been had Soderbergh made it (much of the dialogue is echt Sorkin). These are people you enjoy spending time with, even the dickish ones. Plus I would never have thought Hill was capable of a performance like that. (And is it my imagination, or is Pitt looking more and more like Redford as he ages, especially unshaven and uncombed?)

    Finally, it’s a journey movie, not a destination one. That Beane is proven right despite everything else makes it a win for him…and us.

  10. actionman says:

    I honestly think it’s one of the best sports movies ever made, if for no other reason than it refuses to give the audience what they’re expecting. Pitt is tremendous in the film, so at ease in BB’s skin, and his interplay with Hill was extremely funny and dynamic. That’s the thing about this film — it’s very, very funny in a real, honest-to-goodness way. The trade deadline sequence was my favorite; when do you a see a scene that riveting that’s just people talking to an intercom phone? LOVED this film. Seeing it again tomorrow with my father, who is just going to do cartwheels for it.

  11. djk813 says:

    Going along with the indie theme, while watching it I thought it felt like a mumblecore film. It had a stronger narrative thread perhaps, but there was a cadence that reminded me of mumblecore.

  12. Gus says:

    I saw it today. Really went for it. Do any of you know which movie miller worked on for a long time before this one that he says in the DP30 that he thought was going to happen and didn’t?

  13. Krillian says:

    Saw it Wednesday. Still love it. Thought about the Pitt-turning-into-Redford thing too as I watched.

  14. Bob Burns says:

    sports fans are geeks. listen to sports talk – if people generally gave the same nerdy attention to their work or to public policy as they give to sports stats, this would be a different, I guess better, world

    On your side DP, but you did another Midnight blooper.

  15. David Poland says:

    There’s really no “side” to take, Bob. Like Aj, a bit definitive/dramatic based on an opening day.

  16. jennab says:

    We’re going to see it tonight and I have 0% interest in baseball; in fact, subject matter is a liability. I think the marketing has been terrific, it looks fun, light-hearted, but with enough substance and star-power to make the trek to the theater worth it.

  17. Two things. First of all, I’m not sure how accurate the whole ‘a baseball movie for those who don’t like baseball’ meme really is. To its credit, the film is primarily about baseball and the statistics involving baseball. Putting aside deeper meanings, the film’s plot and story mechanics is almost entirely about the game and its stats. I rather enjoy the game and grew to enjoy the stats when I was a soft-core sports card collector for a brief period (late 80s to early 90s) and during my many years playing various Nintendo and Super Nes baseball games. I can only speak for myself, but I probably enjoyed the movie as much as I did BECAUSE I liked the game and knew enough about the rules and what-not to enjoy the ‘inside baseball’ on display. Regular audiences will surely like it, as its a damn good movie, but I imagine a token ‘love of the game’ does give the film an added weight.

    Second thing, and I mean as little disrespect as possible (and retroactive apologies if I misread what you meant), but I believe DP does a great disservice when he basically calls the film ‘an arthouse movie’. Yes, it’s not as openly mainstream as something like Miracle (which was quite good, btw), nor is it as kid-friendly as The Sandlot or (my favorite kid-centric baseball movie) Little Big League. But it’s still a pretty ‘normal’ big-studio, star-driven drama with a big movie star and an understandable narrative arc that is relatable to most audiences (the whole ‘was supposed to be a star’/Moses story). It is one thing to say the film is less painfully commercial than a studio might hope. It is another thing to say that it (and I may be reading too much into this) belongs in an arthouse because of its somewhat adult sensibilities and less than completely happy finale.

    It is this kind of thinking (and even if you didn’t mean it as such, others have said as much) that is at least part of the cause of the trend with more-or-less mainstream dramas and comedies (Solitary Man, Cedar Rapids, etc) being regulated to the art house where they are platformed to death. Moneyball is simply a darn good movie that is made by adults and intended for adults and contains adult sensibilities. It’s still a mainstream film, if only for older audiences who happen to like solid dramas.

  18. movielocke says:

    I’d put this a hair ahead of Warrior as the best fiction film of the year (1 and 2 overall are Cave of Forgotten dreams and Hot Coffee). Brilliant film, terrific filmmaking, and hugely successful with the audience. I expect great legs and a 35% or less second weekend drop.

  19. Joe Leydon says:

    Funny how a “less than completely happy finale” might make a contemporary film seem like something lacking in mainstream appeal. Anyone here see the original Rocky — or, for that matter, the original Bad News Bears — lately? Have audiences really changed all that much?

  20. David Poland says:

    But Joe… this is not that kind of ending.

    I have always been a lover of good “winning by losing” endings. This film doesn’t offer that.

    And Scott… taking the words out of the director and screenwriter’s mouths.

    I like the movie too. And I get the excessive excitement over a good opening gross. If this becomes a big audience hit then I have underestimated the audience, not the movie.

  21. Lynch Van Sant says:

    “Contagion hits $50 million today, on its way to a probable domestic number in the mid-60s” – I think you miscounted, it will be at $60 by the end of the week. So, mid-$70’s is a given.

    “I don’t think Moneyball will see the $50m mark domestically, much less a higher number.” – Oops. Looks like it will be challenging Contagion’s numbers.

  22. Eric says:

    What’s really intersting about that comment that Brad Pitt is aging into Robert Redford is that he is 47 going on 48 the same age Redford was when he did the Natural back in 1984. Concidence hmmm.

  23. David Poland says:

    Asked & answered, LynchVS.

  24. Madam Pince says:

    Contagion has it own A-listers to boast of, so it is not just Soderbergh powering things along. I really don’t think his Moneyball would have made one dime more.

  25. Triple Option says:

    I thought the marketing for this movie tried to lead people to believe this would be a real feel-good, rags-to-riches, everybody comes together to win kind of movie. There is that through line but I think to its benefit they didn’t play to “the big game” at the end. They focused on key departures and a few acquisitions, which irl were huge but neglected to mention they had Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito in their starting rotation but I wasn’t bothered by that. I was glad the film delivered what it did. Glad they didn’t try to make some huge family drama just to try to cross appeal or dive too deep inside Beane’s head. Pitt, I thought was impressive. He definitely held it and didn’t try to create a “character,” just sorta played it as is.

    I don’t know what movie Soderbergh would’ve brought in. Does anyone know how much was the script changed after he left? It’s hard for me to picture a better film. I don’t know if I’d go w/the art house assessment but I think a movie any “bigger” would’ve been sloppy. I’m a big baseball fan and I really enjoyed it. I think non-fans would enjoy it too.

  26. cadavra says:

    “I have always been a lover of good “winning by losing” endings. This film doesn’t offer that.”


    I don’t know what you consider “winning” (in the non-Sheen sense), but my interpretation is that rejecting the big bucks from Boston and staying with the team he built is a win for him, as he wants to prove his system works by winning that final game. And bless him, he’s still at it, so it could still happen.

  27. Bennett says:

    I thought that Moneyball was the best film I have seen in a so far weak 2011. I do wonder if September is the best time to release the film. I would say that Brad Pitt fans regardless on whenever the film came out. I think that the film is really geared towards men that obviously really enjoy the complex nature of sports. In that regard, with baseball playoffs, college & high school football, and NFL football taking up the time and attention of the demo, why not release it earlier in the year. Granted it makes sense for the awards run, but I feel that Sony left money on the table.

  28. Beauty says:

    I haven’t seen the movie Moneyball but you have me very interested in seeing it now. I want to know and get my opinion about it. I hope that it isn’t as roughed up as you say. A Baseball movie that isn’t about Baseball?? Mmmmm…. I don’t know what to think about that. I’m confused. My co-worker is a big Baseball Fan and he loved the movie but he might not have looked at the technical side of it like you did. I will have to check with him. I’m really glad I don’t have to waste money to see the movie though because I have the Blockbuster Movie Pass. I don’t even have to go to Blockbuster to get it because it comes in the mail. Thank goodness. I hope I like the movie in all!

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