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Will 'Moneyball' movie be worth it?

2/8/2011

What do this month's Oscars have to do with a baseball movie that is months away from even hitting theaters? Let’s answer by first taking a short trip back in time.

We all remember the reaction when we first heard about the "Moneyball" movie. Near-universal cries of "Are you kidding me?" And that was from people who liked Michael Lewis' bestselling book, let alone those who panned it.

There were exceptions to the catcalls — namely, me. As I wrote nearly two years ago, assuming the movie would be a disaster was exactly the kind of knee-jerk rush to judgment that "Moneyball" itself rallied against. At the time, the film had an Oscar-winning pedigree in director Steven Soderbergh ("Traffic") and writer Steven Zallian ("Schindler's List"), not to mention twice-nominated Brad Pitt in the lead role of Billy Beane. Sure, maybe the movie wouldn't work, but it was kind of preposterous to rule out its potential with these and other talented creatives behind it.

Lots has happened since then. The project nearly died at Sony after producers gave Soderbergh's near-documentary approach the cold shoulder. Then, like the reborn Phoenix that the spring training site of the Oakland A's is named after, the cinematic "Moneyball" rose again, with a new director (Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller of "Capote") and a polish of Zallian's script by Aaron Sorkin.

Which brings me to the thrust of this post ...

There was another film that inspired derision similar to "Moneyball" when it was first announced to the public. It had potentially esoteric (not to mention divisive) subject matter, and it had a lead character who seemed mostly unsympathetic, uninteresting or unknown. It didn't, at first glance, lend itself to the big screen at all.

That movie was "The Social Network," which stands as one of two front-runners for this month's best picture Oscar and a virtual lock to win the best adapted screenplay award -- in addition to, as a small aside, grossing nearly $100 million at the United States box office and more than $200 million worldwide.

"Moneyball," scheduled to be released in September, almost exactly a year to the day after the 2010 launch of "The Social Network," comes from the same studio, with two of the same producers (Scott Rudin and Michael De Luca) and now, of course, Sorkin, whose credits from "A Few Good Men" to "The West Wing," long established him as one of Hollywood's most talented writers. And as for his appreciation of the games people play, look no further than "Sports Night," his half-hour ABC dramedy that is among the most underrated pieces of sports-hued entertainment ever created -- all of it focused on what goes on behind-the-scenes.

There are several keys to the critical success of "Moneyball." For baseball fans, it will be how well it toes the alienating line of its central thesis as well as how real the depiction of the game is. And for movie fans in general, it will be how well it transcends its subject matter and becomes a story that a wide swath of people can truly care about, the way "Social Network" did. There are indications from insiders that, despite the laborious, sometimes clumsy process of getting the film off the ground -- perhaps best defined by the perplexing casting of Jonah Hill as the character formerly known as Paul DePodesta -- the final shooting script will balance entertainment with an adherence to the book and the facts. But of course, we won't know until we know.

As for the commercial prospects, well, baseball obviously isn't everybody's cup of tea, here in the States let alone overseas. On the other hand, the movie does star Pitt, who brings a bit more box office pull to the universe than Jesse Eisenberg of "Social." Further, though few had high expectations for another recent adaptation of a Michael Lewis book, “The Blind Side” earned more than $250 million in the U.S. along with its best picture nomination. If word of mouth is positive, "Moneyball" would almost certainly be a success on two fronts.

No one's saying that "Moneyball" is any kind of lock to mimic the critical or commercial glory of "Social Network." For all their similarities, they're different animals. Baseball and Facebook are not the same thing, just for starters. I have no investment in its success other than my preference for good movies over bad (especially on subjects near and dear to my heart), but the bottom line remains that there's simply too much behind this movie to dismiss it out of hand. It might not succeed, but at this point, there’s no way anyone can say it won’t.

-- Jon Weisman writes about the Dodgers at Dodger Thoughts for ESPNLosAngeles.com.