While inspirational sports stories usually prove to be box office draws, when you make them you still run the risk of alienating the portion of the film-going audience who just don’t like sports. If someone doesn’t like basketball or football, how do you get them to sit through a story where people play basketball or football for two hours? Brad Pitt’s 2011 starring vehicle, Moneyball, was hyped by its fans as being a baseball story that anybody could get into. Its focus was more on statistics and science stuff than it was gameplay. It was more about bucking the system than it was winning the big game. And at its heart was a story about a failed man reclaiming his life and growing as an individual. There’s no need to be into baseball to enjoy all of that stuff, right?
Major League, conversely, is a 1989 comedy that was aimed squarely at baseball fans. If you didn’t know about the Cleveland Indians’ pathetic standing in the league, if you didn’t have a long-standing relationship with hearing Bob Uecker’s voice talk about the game, and if you didn’t know the ins-and-outs of each position and exactly what it takes to be bad at playing them, then a lot of the movie’s charms were likely going to be lost on you. And if you could care less about whether or not the Indians beat the Yankees in the championship game, would you even be able to get anything out of watching this movie at all? Maybe. If you’re a teenage girl with posters of Tom Berenger hanging up on your bedroom wall.
What do they have in common?
Probably you thought that the team with the best players always wins. Nope. That’s dumb. These movies are both about how awful baseball teams with no money can come from behind and beat all of the well-funded teams with all of the jacked up studs, just by being kookier. They’re about an island of misfit toys coming together to become better than the sum of their parts. They’re real celebrations of the underdog.
That’s what they have in common. The thing that separates them is that Moneyball was nominated for a bunch of awards and is considered to be one of the best movies of its year, while Major League is probably viewed as being one of the four movies in everyone’s lame dad’s DVD collection. Is it possible though, that despite their disparate reputations, Major League is a more satisfying film?
Why is Moneyball overrated?
Probably a whole separate essay could be written about how no other movie has ever wasted Philip Seymour Hoffman’s talents as much as this one did, but let’s put that issue aside and focus on Moneyball’s storytelling. The problem is that the film puts too much stock in Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane character, and he just doesn’t prove to be interesting enough to support it. We watch him chew and spit, hide out in exercise equipment rooms, and lounge in his office with his feet up on his desk. We get flashbacks to his failed career that give us information we could have picked up on through context clues. More than any of this though, we spend an inordinate amount of time with him and his daughter, developing a relationship between them that fails to go anywhere other than obvious, corny places, and that ends with an embarrassment of a scene where Beane has an epiphany while listening to her sing a slightly repurposed version of an indie rock song. I’m cringing just remembering it.
Which is a shame, because the other, more traditionally baseball-related story that the movie builds is actually pretty interesting, and it gets completely undercut by Billy Beane melodrama. What Moneyball fails to realize is that, even for people who aren’t fans of sports, a story of underdog characters growing to the point where they’re successful is one of the most satisfying to watch. Jonah Hill’s Peter Brand character is the one with the unique ideas, the one who figured out a way to revolutionize a game that has been around forever. Watching his methods succeed or fail, watching the drama created when Hoffman’s character and the old guard try to sabotage them, that was all interesting stuff, and it’s all forced to play out in the background of Beane’s daddy/daughter drama.
It’s true, they do try to present the game where the A’s try to break the all-time win streak record as a sort of traditional sports movie climax, but it comes after a mere minute and a half build that’s given to us in montage form, and it subsequently plays as being totally without tension. Once again, the Beane character interjects himself in the proceedings and the drama becomes more about whether or not a jinx that he’s decided he’s under is real or not. Respectfully, who the hell cares? And then the movie, which feels like it’s already reached its climax, pivots to create another, less interesting climax about whether or not Beane is going to take a new deal and move away from his daughter. Why did these two separate movies get smooshed together into one story?
Why is Major League underpraised?
Moneyball’s focus on statistics turns the players into numbers, and consequently robs its baseball scenes of a lot of drama. The players are names that get rattled off rapid fire, and the movie uses news broadcasts to fill us in on whether they fail or succeed. There’s no villain there, no physical presence for the film’s protagonists to go up against. Major League is just the opposite. This movie is all about building characters and chronicling their personal journeys. A pretty big cast of characters get introduced, and they all get obstacles to overcome. We know all of the their weaknesses, what they have to overcome to succeed, and we become invested in their struggles. It doesn’t feel like the outcome is out of the protagonists’ hands like it does in Moneyball. And that fat, mustached guy who keeps hitting home runs off of Charlie Sheen’s Ricky Vaughn makes for a great villain.
Along with that focus on the characters’ personal journeys comes a laser focus on their overall shared goal: to win the championship and prove that they’re not disposable players whose careers are over. Within five minutes of its runtime Major League has spelled out its conflict and made its stakes clear. The owner of the Indians wants the team to fail completely so that she can move them to a more glamorous city, and she will do anything to make sure that happens. The rest of the film is a straight ahead freight train building steam to the final big game, where if everyone we’re introduced to fails to come together to do the impossible, they’ll all be sent to the gutter. That’s a story anybody can get behind, sports fan or no.
Aside from all that, Major League is a pretty great comedy too. Its humor consists of character based comedy of errors stuff along with some clever asides, which is some of the best stuff out there. For a movie that spends a lot of time being set in a men’s locker room, this isn’t the sort of dad comedy that’s full of a bunch of lame wiener jokes and dudes calling each other gay; even though your dad really likes it. Plus, this thing opens with a Randy Newman song. When has that ever failed? All it takes is a ridiculously sappy song about how Cleveland is great set against a couple of minutes of footage of how ugly Cleveland is to figure out that this is better made than more disposable sports comedies. No offense, Necessary Roughness.
Evening the odds.
Any little kid could tell you that the coolest thing that’s ever happened in baseball is Babe Ruth calling his shot. Therefore, any self-respecting baseball movie should have at least one scene that plays on the idea of calling your shot. How else to capture our imaginations? Major League respects this time-honored tradition, while Moneyball doesn’t even give us enough baseball focus to entertain the notion. That’s almost sacrilegious. How could anyone expect to usurp The Sandlot as the greatest baseball movie of all time without having a scene where a character calls his shot?
On Our Last Installment of Over/Under: ‘Roger Dodger’ Is a Funnier Look at Sexual Anxiety Than ‘American Pie,’ and It’s Not Even a Comedy