Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Moneyball: The Musical

I finally saw Moneyball. With autumn arriving and the 2012 World Series just around the corner, my timing seemed perfect. I like baseball, and have fond memories of cheering the Dodgers on to the National League pennant. (Yup, that was long ago.) So I was prepared to enjoy this look at how General Manager Billy Beane used statistical savvy to power his Oakland A’s into the play-offs.

Too bad the film seemed so sluggish. I learned a lot about the role of a general manager on a big-league baseball team, but the energy of good baseball was largely missing. Moneyball instead lingered on the softer side of Brad Pitt’s character. We got a glimpse of his past as a one-time hot prospect who never lived up to his advance billing. And much time was spent on a hackneyed exploration of his bond with his young daughter, which apparently remained strong despite the tensions of a divorce. Games were won and lost in the course of Moneyball, but I never felt like root-root-rooting for the home team, because baseball in this film seemed more like an intellectual exercise, to be observed from afar. (In fact, Billy Beane apparently DID see his teams play only from afar – via TV screens and video feeds – because he simply couldn’t bear to watch up-close. But the passion I gather he brought to the game never came through to me in my bleacher seat.)

It seems wacky, I know, to jump from baseball to its prissy-looking English cousin, cricket. For a red-blooded American it’s hard to grasp the logic of a game that lasts for days, stops for tea-breaks, and talks of stumps, wickets, and creases. But I still feel great affection for this gentlemanly sport, because it led me to meet some splendid people. In 1975, on our first trip to England, my husband and I spotted a group of teenage boys playing cricket behind a stately home. Watching, we somehow made a close connection with Mary and John Gower and their adorable five-year-old Daniel, whose older brothers were out on the cricket pitch. We’re still friends, and Daniel has evolved into a movie buff too.

Despite my sentimental attachment to cricket, I wouldn’t have thought to see a movie on the subject. Especially not one that’s four hours long. Then in 2001 I started hearing about a Bollywood flick called Lagaan. Set in the days when the Brits ruled India, it presents a David-versus-Goliath conflict in which residents of a drought-stricken Indian village are challenged to a cricket match by a British colonial lord. If they win, three years of tax obligations (lagaan) will be cancelled. If they lose, their tax bill will triple. Since these humble folk know nothing about cricket, gathering a proper team is challenging. When they take the field, their ranks include a farmer, a fortune-teller, an “untouchable,” and a spy for the other side. Fully half the film shows us the match, in detail – and I could follow what was happening every step of the way. The characters and their plight were so engrossing that I was thoroughly caught up in the action, and so was everyone else in the theatre. No wonder Lagaan has been named one of the greatest sports movies of all time.

Since Lagaan is part of the Bollywood tradition, it is of course a musical, and I’ve just discovered that the catchy tunes are by A. R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire. Like Lagaan itself, they capture the passion for sport and for life that Moneyball so completely overlooks.


  1. Thanks! As you've noticed, I adore "Lagaan," the shortest four-hour movie I've ever seen. Spread the word to your Bollywood-loving friends, Danish!

  2. I'm intrigued - and want to see Lagaan now! Thank you for the heads up, Ms. Gray!