Monday, October 3, 2011

Keith Law, world's biggest sourpuss, hated Moneyball (the movie)

Reading back over this post after I've finished it, I have come to the conclusion that it's atrocious. I have just one excuse but fortunately that excuse is pretty good. Whereas I write most FireJay posts (especially the ones that come in at less than 200 words) in a single sitdown, it took me five to write this one. Two of them were on airplanes, where the recycled air makes you think any thought you put into written word is hilarious when in fact you're barely forming complete sentences. But overall it's pretty atrocious and way too long. And I'm not sorry for either of those two facts. Whether you read it and don't enjoy it or decide not to read it after sifting through this preview, what you need to know is this: Keith Law is a cockhole. Now let's give him the floor. Oh yeah, and there are spoilers in here or whatever.

Moneyball, the movie, is an absolute mess of a film, the type of muddled end product you’d expect from a project that took several years and went through multiple writers and directors.

Keith Law's review of Moneyball, the movie, is an absolute mess of a blog post. It's the type of muddled end product you'd expect from the biggest sourpuss in sports media. (Complicating matters is the fact that he owes allegiance to both sides of the traditional scouting vs. modern statistical analysis debate, which means he can hate the movie from two different angles.) Seriously, is there a more negative sportswriter than Law? I'm not the nicest/most positive person in the world but he makes me sound like Helen Keller. His average SportsNation chat is pretty much the following exchange repeated 25 to 30 times.

MinorLeagueFan (Springfield): Hey Keith, thanks for taking my question! What do you think about [my favorite team's best prospect]? How soon until he's in the majors?


I hate Keith Law. Not because he's not knowledgable, but because he makes talking about baseball unfun. Everyone stinks, all teams are poorly run, and everything is trending downwards. Fuck Keith Law. Go live under a bridge and stop bothering people. I understand it's hypocritical for me of all people to complain about someone who's too negative, but that tells you just how awful Law is. He makes me want to go lie down in a big sunny field and look up at the clouds and say "Hey, life's pretty good." I'm just a simple hater; Keith Law is a bona fide card-carrying asshole.

Even good performances by a cast of big names and some clever makeup work

Unless he thinks the young version of Beane was also played by Pitt, which is not the case, there is no reason to laud the movie's makeup work.

couldn’t save this movie, and if I hadn’t been planning to review it, I would have walked out.

Keith's probably the kind of guy who boos mediocre singers at karaoke bars.

The movie failed first and foremost for me as a movie, not just as a baseball movie. (I’ll get to the baseball parts later.)

There are two big problems with Keith's viewpoint on this matter. As annoying as his analysis of the movie as a movie is, though, the real issue is the cognitive dissonance in his review of the movie as a movie and then of the movie as a baseball movie. So to understand what a piece of shit this review as a whole is we have to look at both portions of it.

In any case the first problem with the "movie as a movie" side is that Law is bothered by parts of the movie that drastically alter (or inaccurately add to) the story told in the book, when the movie's directors/writers simply made those changes/additions to create tension and add drama. To use a term of art, they movie-ized the story.

Is there anything wrong with that? Look, it would have been interesting to see them try to pull of an exact duplication of the book's narrative, but it would have been extremely difficult and ill-suited for mass consumption. If you're going to get a movie made starring Brad Pitt and released nationwide at the same time TV's fall season is starting you've got to make it marketable to mainstream audiences. This is a movie "based on a true story;" if it told the exact true story in the manner the book tells it, it wouldn't really be much of a hit with anyone besides baseball fans. Instead, it's going to be a hit with everyone who likes movies because it's got a lot of human drama built in that isn't really present in the book. If this is such a problem for you that it ruins the movie, you shouldn't have gone to see it in the first place (even for the explicit purpose of reviewing it; that "excuse" would make you even more of an asshole than you already were).

The second problem, which is sort of like the opposite side of the same coin, is that he's bothered by several parts of the movie that are more or less exact recreations of relatively trivial/boring stuff in the book and aren't interesting enough to him to be part of a movie. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? He's Keith Law and he doesn't like anything so it doesn't have to make sense. You'll see what I mean. To sum up, he hates parts of the movie that were changed from the book to make them more movie-ish, and he hates parts from the book that were not changed because they are boring.

The general plot here is that the A’s lose their 2001 ALDS to the Yankees and are about to lose three major players to free agency, so Billy Beane goes hunting for a new way of doing business. He runs into a stats geek working in Cleveland’s front office named Peter Brand, hires him, and Brand brings the sabermetric philosophy that we now associate with the early 2000s Oakland teams. This causes friction with Oakland’s scouts, who are all idiots,

As they were presented in the book.

and Art Howe, who was a stubborn idiot (this is the movie, not my opinion),

As he was occasionally presented in the book (although without the confrontational nature his character possesses in the movie).

and Billy might even lose his job until the A’s get hot and win 20 games in a row. Meanwhile, we are to believe that this is all so Billy can purge the personal demons created by the failure of his playing career.

While Lewis kind of dances around this subject, it's more than reasonable to draw this conclusion from it. Beane as presented in the book certainly hates the mindset inherent in baseball that led scouts to (probably) overvalue him in the draft and refuse to give up on him when it was obvious he wasn't going to be a successful major leaguer. It is at least partially this "he's got the good face, he looks like a ballplayer, he's got all the tools" bullshit that makes book Beane a motivated GM who wants to buck those trends and make decisions about his team based on more reliable indicators of MLB ability. Inferring from this that he's trying to purge some personal demons from his playing days (while also being awesome at his job and making money and winning and all that good stuff) is completely fair.

Movie Beane is more dramatic, because he's played by Brad Pitt and he's in a movie, but I don't think the movie strayed inappropriately far from the book in the way it presented Beane's reflections on his own past. Saying "we are to believe that this is all so Billy can purge his personal demons" is like saying we are to believe that George C. Scott's movie version of General Patton was a mean guy who really liked to win battles. Sure, the way he acts and what he does is drama written for the silver screen. But the burden is on you to prove that you're right and the screenwriters were wrong if you want to make a snarky comment about the character's reasonable motivation that begins with "We are to believe." Of course Law doesn't do this, he just wanted to take a cheap shot at the movie before enumerating the other 50 things he hated about it.

Billy is the only fully realized character in the entire movie, and even at that his disparate pieces don’t tie all that well together.

Guess how many "fully realized" characters the book had? If you really wanted to stretch it you might be able to count Hatteberg and Bradford since Lewis gets pretty deep into their backstories, but that only happened to better develop what made Beane such a genius for acquiring them and using them as he did. If you really really really wanted to stretch it you could try to add Bill James to the list but... no.

Peter Brand, a.k.a. Paul Antipodesta, is a mousy number cruncher who looks like the lay viewer would expect a stat geek to look - unathletic, dressed in dull collared shirts and ties, intimidated by the players, with no complexity to the character.

And yet he's far more developed and interesting than Depodesta is in the book, particularly because of the scenes in which Billy tries to instruct him on how to be a full-fledged GM and the scenes in which he interacts with the players.

Howe is nothing but a holier than thou obstacle for Beane whose entire motivation for his stubbornness is his desire for a contract extension - a hopelessly tired plot device that makes for a one-dimensional character.

Right, Howe got movieized. But movie Beane needed more conflict and drama, and book Howe was a zero dimensional character. So whatever.

Even Casey, Billy’s daughter, who is shoehorned into this weird plot strand about him possibly losing his job, is nothing more than the plot strand requires her to be.

Right, Casey's not even in the book and her movie character pretty much just exists to be cute and bubbly and let us see movie Beane's emotional side. And the idea that Beane's job was in jeopardy during the 2002 season is laughable. Whatever. Like I said above, without stuff like this the movie isn't as fit for mass consumption and probably doesn't get made in the first place. It's a tradeoff I'm willing to make.

The lack of multi-dimensional characters is exacerbated by the languid, aimless plot

The plot is anything but aimless. It's got a bunch of threads going at once, maybe too many, and some of them are completely fabricated and don't reflect how the real life A's or real life Beane operated. But it's certainly trying to tug on our heartstrings and get us to care about the outcome of the season. Remember the whole thing about how Beane might lose his job that annoyed you? That's called a plot device. Maybe you think it's dumb and unrealistic, but it means the plot has aim and purpose. Sheesh.

and stop-and-start pacing.

I can't really argue with this, but the book works the same way. Whatever.

The film mopes through Opening Day and the beginning of the A’s season, races through their midyear turnaround, then jumps through most of the winning streak until the twentieth victory, at which point we’re handed slow motion views of the A’s blowing an 11-0 lead … and of Art Howe thinking, with no sound at all.

Yeah. I thought it was a pretty cool and effective method of amplifying the action and making a single regular season game seem a lot more meaningful that it really was.

Even the paces of conversations are strange and often forced; one of the “action” scenes, if I could call it that, involves watching Billy juggle three GMs (Shapiro, Phillips, and Sabean) to try to acquire Ricardo Rincon. All three GMs come off as stooges,

As they do in the book, on multiple occasions (during the leadup to the first round of the 2002 draft, in Beane's acquisition of Bradford from Chicago).

but more importantly, it’s boring as hell to watch anyone, even Brad Pitt, talk on the phone.

ARRRRRGH FUCK YOU. That's what GMs do. That's how it works. If you're going to complain about how the characters and stakes got altered to make the movie more dramatic, and complain (as he will in a few paragraphs) about how unrealistic it is for Beane to travel in person to Cleveland to discuss a few simple trade ideas, don't complain when the movie shows Beane doing the same stuff a real GM does.

I could have tolerated a lot of flaws if Moneyball had just given me a good baseball movie,

Here's where it gets really good/infuriating.

with some real tension to it,

Look, dumbass, the movie takes the amount of tension present in the book and amplifies it quite a bit by creating artificial conflicts. Artificial conflicts you just spent several paragraphs bitching about. There's no way to make it more tense without making it less realistic. Your insinuation that you were bored by the movie as it was made and would like to have seen a little more drama and your complaints that Beane wasn't ACTUALLY about to lose his job and that Art Howe wasn't ACTUALLY just gunning for a contract extension all year are kind of dissonant, no?

or perhaps a strong character study of Billy Beane.

The film more or less provides this, inasmuch as it can be done in 130 minutes. It's not a 10 hour HBO miniseries. I think we still get a very good idea of what makes Beane tick and why he turned down John Henry's BoSox offer.

But the film provides neither, and I spent most of the movie wondering what was really on the line here. The A’s don’t win a playoff series in 2002, so the script can’t set that up as a goal or use the playoffs as a climax. Beane took a $39 million team to the playoffs the year before; he wasn’t going to be fired in May for taking a few risks that his owner more or less told him to take (and if he had been fired, he would have been hired by someone else in a heartbeat, despite the character’s later claim to the contrary). His daughter is worried about him because she doesn’t see the big picture, but neither she nor her father is in any real jeopardy at any point in the film. We’re not playing for anything here.

Fuck. You.

Then there’s the baseball stuff, which is not good. For starters, the lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, isn’t any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts)

Relevant because?

than it was on the page;

Might not have been welcome to you because of your experience in the world of scouting, but I'm pretty sure most readers/viewers enjoy it. It might not be 100% fair, but it's close to 100% entertaining.

they are set up as dim-witted bowling pins for Beane and Brand to knock down with their spreadsheets. It’s cheap writing, and unfair to the real people being depicted.

The movie's depiction of the scouts and their line of thinking differs from the book and might be considered slightly unfair because it makes the scouts seem a little dumber and a little more hard-headed than they're depicted in the book. (The movie also makes them look pretty buffoonish, which may or may not be accurate/fair.) But the book's depiction? As long as Lewis didn't put any words in anyone's mouths, and there's no reason to believe he did, it's 100% fair. Law might be bothered by the villainization of scouts but facts are facts. There really are people out there whose job is evaluating young baseball players who think "the good face" and having a "high butt" are more important than the outcomes those players create on the field. That's insane and the people who hold opinions like that deserve to be made fun of. The fact that they're hardworking and firmly believe in their viewpoint doesn't make it "unfair" for them to be mocked for it.

Current Oakland scouting director Eric Kubota also gets murdered in a drive-by line that depicts him as a clueless intern given the head scouting role after Beane fires Grady Fuson in April after a clubhouse argument (that never really happened).

Saying Kubota gets "murdered" by the line is hyperbolic. It takes a guy who obviously worked very hard to get to where he is today and mildly diminishes his efforts by making it seem Beane promoted him simply because he never played professional baseball. It doesn't demean or insult him. It doesn't make it seem like he knows nothing about baseball. It's a fictionalized scene that is used to drive home a point about Beane; that he doesn't like the mindset of most traditional scouts (a point repeatedly reinforced in the book). I would guess that about 0.1% of the movie's audience came away from that scene feeling like it wasn't really fair. Probably a reasonable sacrifice on the part of the directors.

I’ll confess to laughing at the scout referring to “this Bill James bullshit,” although the A’s bought into that bullshit years before the film claims they did -

Very true; a detail that was movieized.

and, in fact, hired Paul Depodesta three years before the movie-A’s hired Brand.

And another. But there's more to this; see below.

The film also relies on some pretty gross misrepresentations or oversimplifications of the business.

My favorite paragraph.

The idea of a GM getting on a plane and flying two thirds of the way across the country to meet another GM to discuss a trade for a left-handed reliever is so absurd that it should set off alarm bells in even the casual fan. Do you really think that GMs only talk trades in person? That they fly to meet each other for tete-a-tetes before consummating any deal? Do you really think that GMs only talk trades in person?

Well how else was movie Beane supposed to meet Peter Brand? By looking at his resume and then having an interview with him OVER THE PHONE? Even Brad Pitt can't liven up a scene that boring.

Similarly, teams don’t sign injured players to guaranteed contracts by flying out to their houses (on Christmas Eve, apparently) without having them go through physicals.

Right, another sequence of events that would have been more realistic had it been portrayed as happening entirely with a series of phone calls. Eat a turd, Law.

I wasn’t as concerned with the script having Beane trade Carlos Pena to Detroit for a reliever and some money (as opposed to the actual three-team, seven-player deal including Jeff Weaver and Jeremy Bonderman) as I was with seeing Pena, an intelligent, gregarious person, depicted as a sullen Latino player.

He wasn't portrayed as sullen, he was portrayed as disappointed in his trade. This is done in order to play off another scene in which Beane tells Brand players who get traded are inevitably disappointed, but that GMs have to give them the bad news all the same. While that scene wasn't in the book, I think its existence in the movie is pretty fair and helped build both the Beane and Brand characters. On the other hand, Pena was portrayed as Latino, because, well, yeah.

And the film’s emphasis on Beane not making it as a player seems to point to questions about his makeup, especially his confidence, which hardly ties into a film about how makeup is overrated.

If you think that's what the movie was about, I have bad news for you.

If you do end up seeing the film, and I imagine most of you will, there is one scene towards the end that stood out for me as incredibly spot on, so much so that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the film. Beane is sitting in what was then called the .406 club at Fenway Park with John Henry, who is about to offer him a record-breaking deal to become the Red Sox’ new GM. Henry expounds on how Beane’s method of doing things is going to sweep through the industry, and how critics within the game weren’t just trying to protect the game, but were expressing their own fears about their livelihoods. That speech applies just as well to any industry undergoing the kind of creative destruction ushered in by Bill James, Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane. Remember that when you see the next written attack on “stat geeks” who are ruining the game along with a defense of RBIs or pitcher wins.

Also remember it next time you read a review of the movie by someone like Keith Law who's deeply offended with the way stubborn old scouts are portrayed by the filmmakers (and Lewis).

If you haven’t already done so, go read the book before thinking about seeing this movie, and maybe go watch Brad Pitt steal every scene he’s in in Snatch instead.

Are you interested in seeing a baseball movie? Then you'll love a movie about organized crime in London.

Look, I'm a big fan of the book but I didn't love the movie. It was pretty good. I'd give it a solid B, maybe a B+. The criticisms Law offers just blow my mind. What. An. Asshole. He highlights the biggest flaws in the movie but inexplicably fails to understand why they are the way they are. He also complains about ten things he didn't need to complain about. He also simultaneously says that scenes realistically depicting GM work are boring while saying scenes that embellish how interesting it is to be a GM are stupid and unrealistic. In the four and a half years this blog has existed we've never picked on Law with good reason. He's smart, he works hard, and generally does more good than harm (as opposed to, say, 75% of all sportswriters). It's too bad that he's also such a Negative Nancy. I'm now well past my breaking point for ignoring his whining. I've probably made this pretty clear by now but Keith Law can eat a big fat bag of shit. He's the worst.


Chris W said...

Larry fishing for compliments as uzhe. This was an excellent post.

Biggus Rickus said...

The best criticism of the movie was on Filmdrunk. The gist being that the movie is the anti-Moneyball. The point of Moneyball was doing unconventional things to make something work on a small budget, while the movie has a script by Aaron Sorkin, stars a cast of marketable actors and contains a bunch of scenes we've all seen a hundred times in different variations. The movie is the Yankees.

Larry B said...

Oops, tried to reference Law's earlier discussion of Parks and Rec when I actually omitted that from the post. That's what happens when you write the post in pieces and chunks. Basically he brings up that Chris Pratt (Hatteberg) is on Parks and Rec, but does so in a way that snidely implies that the reader probably hasn't heard of or watched P&R because that reader is not as hip or smart as Keith Law. Predictable.

Adam said...

I actually read Keith Law regularly and, I don't think he is as negative as his reputation mostly because people aren't used to analysts giving honest assessments. (especially from ESPN) I have a low opinion of fans when it comes to their knowledge. I sort of like the fact that he will tell people who think, for example Darwin Barney is awesome, to shut up.

Anyway, his review of Moneyball was indeed baffling and massively ignorant.

He seems to forget that the movie is not a documentary, so how can you expect there to be accurate portrayals of anybody? Plus he misses the total point of the movie that the only characters that matter are Beane and Brand. The scouts, other GMs, manager, players etc. are just foils to show the kind of shit he has to deal with to do his job. Carlos Pena is in the movie for like 30 fucking seconds so how are we supposed to get any opinion at all of him? And I consider myself to be a baseball geek and didn't even know who Eric Kubota was so yeah I would say maybe 0.1% of the audience even had a second thought about that scene.

Adam said...

I can't get over the fact that he doesn't seem to realize that the average viewer doesn't know anything about Beane or the A's so the trip to Cleveland SETS UP THE WHOLE FUCKING REST OF THE MOVIE because that's how discovers Brand and his method.

pnoles said...

I absolutely loved the movie, and Keith Law is my favorite ESPNalyst. I know he's a sarcastic douche to a lot of people in his chats, but I think he's funny a good amt of the time and that it sort of gives him character (setting him apart from say, Jerry Crasnick). Actually, is a very good parody of him.

Anyway, I'm bothered by this. The one good point he makes is that yeah, flying all the way to Cleveland to discuss the Rincon trade is a bit ridiculous....even when I was watching the movie I was a bit like "wtf??!??!?!?". But I don't know how he can slam the necessary departures from the book and honestly, they did an awesome job with the 11-0 game in the movie and I don't know how someone who supposedly loves baseball as much as Keith Law can be so down on it. That sucked.

Dan said...

unrelated but not sure exactly where I should send this gem.

pnoles said...

I commented on The Dish: Law's response:

"Pnoles: I don’t think you read, or understood, my review. I was simply not judging the film against the book (given how much I read, I certainly understand the limitations a two-hour film faces), nor was I remotely skewed by my relationship to the subject matter. I couldn’t have been clearer about this film’s issues with pacing or character development. I don’t know why you’d overlook that, and instead make your comment on this review about me."

Meh. He only spent 2 paragraphs talking about pacing and character development. Whatever.

Last Name First Initial said...

Larry, no offense, but I got tired of reading this...did you see the movie? Cut to the fucking chase time...I read the book years ago and loved it, the previews look pretty good (I like Jonah Hill and like Pitt in select roles) should I spend $10 to see the god damned movie?

Oh and I just gave you word-herpes.