from the archives: Moneyball, The Tree of Life, and why there’s no such thing as a bad idea

In 2011, Brad Pitt starred in two movies, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Moneyball, based on the nonfiction book about the Oakland A’s of the early aughts by Michael Lewis. I saw the former at a free screening in the spring and thought I overpaid for it, and caught the latter in theatres when it was released in September. It prompted thoughts on the notion of ideas and their relationship to good stories, and I put them down on the LiveJournal blog on 25 September 2011, and I re-present it here.

One of the things I always tell people is that there’s really no such thing as a bad idea — and also that ideas are, fundamentally, meaningless when out of context of execution. This is why fears that people will steal your ideas are laughably ridiculous, because the idea isn’t a commodity worth stealing. Ideas are easy, ideas are a dime a dozen, and the quality of the idea by itself doesn’t mean a hill of beans — it’s the execution that matters.

I bring this up because Friday night I went to see Moneyball, the second Brad Pitt movie I’ve seen this year — the other being The Tree of Life — and the two movies perfectly encapsulate this.

First of all, let me say at the outset that the two movies’ commonality — Brad Pitt — help cement the fact that Pitt is far more than just a pretty face. Honestly, I thought that argument was settled years ago when he appeared in Kalifornia as a scruffy white-trash killer, but I still hear complaints about it no matter how many amazing performances the man turns in. In The Tree of Life, he was the closest the film had to a saving grace, brilliantly and subtly playing the angry, abusive father.

But that’s about it, as The Tree of Life (or, as I came to call it, The Existential Angst of Boring White People) is a simply awful movie, a pretentious pile of nonsense, with an incoherent structure masquerading as “arty,” and mistaking random time jumps (some of them as far back as prehistory) for complexity. When Ed Wood threw random images of buffalo stampeding in Glen or Glenda, it’s rightly regarded as incompetence, but when Terrence Malick does the same thing with random images of stellar phenomena and dinosaurs killing each other, it’s deep. Right.

The thing is, if you look at the plot of Tree — once you figure out what the fuck it is, anyhow — it should make a good movie. The story of a family in 1950s Texas should be compelling and could be interesting, but it so totally isn’t. (I was also boggled by people claiming it was about the grieving process — it began with the death that people are supposed to be grieving from, then has those random stellar and paleozoic images, then flashes back to life before that person died, with only occasional glimpses into the present day. The actual grief gets maybe ten minutes of screen time, and mostly it’s Sean Penn with his serious face.)

Contrast this with Moneyball. This is a baseball movie without a big game or even necessarily a happy ending. More to the point, it’s based on a nonfiction book that’s about a general manager trying to use advanced methods to build a team on the cheap. It’s about Billy Beane and how he built a contender in Oakland while on a budget that was a tiny fraction of that of the New York Yankees.

The film’s been in development for several years, with Steven Soderbergh set to direct originally, and at least three writers worked on it — with the last two passes being done by the two who were credited: Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian. Sorkin’s fingerprints are all over this thing, and that’s a big part of the movie’s appeal: what makes the whole thing work is the sharp dialogue and the investment we have in the people involved. Beane, A’s manager Art Howe (brilliantly played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the assorted A’s players, coach Ron Washington (brilliantly played by Brent Jennings), and Peter Brand (the film’s version of Beane’s former assistant GM, and later GM for the Dodgers, Paul DePodesta, who declined to allow his name to be used). Sorkin and Zaillian even managed to provide a narrative structure, using the A’s 20-game winning streak in 2002 as a sort-of climax.

The movie does play fast and loose with reality in spots — Jeremy Giambi was already on the team prior to 2002, the Carlos Peña trade was actually a three-team deal with the Tigers and Yankees, and Scott Hatteberg, Ricardo Rincon, and Chad Bradford had a lot less to do with the A’s winning the AL West in 2002 than their starting pitching (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito at the height of their powers) and AL MVP Miguel Tejada — but it still manages to be a compelling story.

Certainly a lot more so than The Tree of Life…..

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