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'Moneyball:' When is a baseball movie not a baseball movie?

September 24, 2011 |  7:54 pm

One of the great Hollywood story lines in recent years is reaching its climax this weekend as  Bennett Miller's "Moneyball," the drama about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his unorthodox methods, opens around the country. The ending is shaping up as a happy one so far -- the movie grossed nearly $7 million, a strong number, in its first day of release.

Based on Michael Lewis' baseball-heavy book about niche topics like Bill James and slugging percentages, "Moneyball" is very much about baseball. Except when it isn't.

In Sony's view, the movie was a little too much about baseball when Steven Soderbergh was set to direct it in June 2009. Soderbergh wanted to mix a scripted narrative and documentary-style interviews with players like Scott Hatteberg and David Justice. Sony pulled the plug just days before production, and Sony regrouped with Miller and writer Aaron Sorkin.

Now it's a broader story of redemption, but one in which minutiae like on-base-percentage and the futility of the bunt sacrifice are still featured, as is a lot of real-life footage from the A's 2002 season.

Feature writers, reviewers and box-office pundits have referred to it as a baseball movie. But, anxious about the limited audience for baseball movies, Sony has sometimes gone out of its way to de-emphasize the baseball aspects. As my colleagues Ben Fritz and Nicole Sperling wrote this week, even as the company has taken ads in baseball stadiums and on ESPN, it's also bought spots on Lifetime.  The tagline "What are you really worth?" conjures up more thoughts about empowerment than it does earned-run-average.

The baseball verisimilitude takes a further ding with the cast. Although Soderbergh wanted pretty much all the players to play themselves, Sony and Miller eventually decided to go with actors. Hatteberg, for instance, is played by Chris Pratt, the "Parks & Recreation" star who isn't exactly a household name with the sports-bar set.

Pitt hasn't shied away from the sports themes. When 24 Frames spoke to him at the Cannes Film Festival, he stressed the film's America's-pastime bona fides: "We hired real people, real scouts, real ballplayers," he told us. But producers and executives affiliated with the movie have taken pains to note that it's a feel good story about a man's redemption that can appeal to all audiences.

It all adds up to the more schizophrenic presentations in movie-marketing history. Then again, enduring sports movies are never really about sports.  "Rocky" had precious little boxing in it, and "The Natural" could just as easily have been about fly-fishing. "Moneyball" is continuing in that long tradition. It's very much about baseball. Unless you don't like baseball, in which case it's about something else entirely.


Sony pitches Brad Pitt on Moneyball

Moneyball scores big with film critics

Moneyball finally comes to the screen

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball." Credit: Sony Pictures


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