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21.2.12

For Your Consideration: 'Moneyball' and 'The Guard'

Comedies are no less deserving of recognition than any other kind of film, at least not merely for the fact that they are funny. These two recent lighter-weight movies entertained mostly with humor, with some charming performances along the way. Oddly, only one of them garnered any recognition in the Academy Award nominations, and it was the lesser of the two, but also the one with the major Hollywood actor in it. Brad Pitt liked the best-selling book Moneyball, Michael Lewis's account of how the general manager of the Oakland A's, Billy Beane, used a complex mathematical assessment of potential players to bounce back from a 2001 playoff loss and rebuild a strong 2002 team on one of Major League Baseball's most modest budgets. So Pitt produced his own movie version of the story, starring himself. He probably should have just written the screenplay and directed it himself, too, since he went through three screenwriters (Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, and Stan Chervin) and three directors (David Frankel, Steven Soderbergh, and finally settling on Bennett Miller) to get it made.


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Moneyball is an entertaining film, but it is difficult not to see the force of Pitt's name behind the Academy Award nominations it received. Brad Pitt's work here was good, but hardly the stuff of Best Actor recognition. His Beane is certainly charming, the sort of person the cocksure smooth-talker he played in Thelma and Louise may have grown up to become. Pitt should have been nominated for his much stronger performance in The Tree of Life, in which he was what was mostly keeping me riveted to the screen. Even more mysterious is the nomination for Jonah Hill, as Beane's bean-counting sidekick, in the Best Supporting Actor category, for a performance distinguished mostly by how much it lacked in range, affect, or nuance. Acting really should not come down to how still one can keep one's face. If any supporting performance in the movie deserved recognition, it was the grizzled A's manager played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who communicates with a single unspoken glance his disdain for Beane and his new method.

Filling out the list of bones tossed in Pitt's direction -- six nominations? really? -- are nods for Film Editing and Sound Mixing, categories that a more fanciful, effects-driven movie -- The Artist, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Hugo -- will likely win. The screenplay hits some high points, especially with the wad-chewing baseball verbiage tossed around by Beane's no-nonsense team of talent scouts, but it is not even close to the same class as the brilliant adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so concise and hard-hitting. An undeserved nomination for Best Picture seems little more than padding in the big field favored by the Academy in recent years. The film may mean more for true fans of the game, although it is not strictly speaking only a "baseball movie," but for anyone who already knows that money rules professional sports, it offers little revelation.

The Guard, written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (brother of Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh), is a crime caper mixed with a mismatched buddy cop story. The Guard of the title is the Guard of the Peace of Ireland, the Irish national police force, apparently not known for its crime-fighting prowess, at least not out on the western coast where the film takes place. A group of drug smugglers is planning to land a boatload of cocaine at one of the sleepy ports in the area, and the police response brings together Sergeant Gerry Boyle (played by Brendan Gleeson, probably most recognizable as Mad-Eye Moody in the Harry Potter movies), a roughneck copper in need of some sensitivity seminars, with a squeaky clean FBI agent named Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle).

Irreverence is a special gift, and McDonagh's sharp screenplay skewers every piety, upending most expectations. In an American cop film, a white officer might be out of place in a poor neighborhood, but here it is Cheadle's character who looks like a fish out of water among the mostly Gaelic-speaking residents of the county. All of the racial tension comes from the sergeant's seemingly clueless needling of Everett. How can the drug smugglers be white? Aren't all drug smugglers black or Mexican? Shooting at actual criminals must make Everett uncomfortable, since the FBI mostly shoots at women and children or sets them on fire as they did in Waco. It is hard to know, both for Everett and for the viewer, just how serious Boyle is when he says these things.



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Cheadle gives a clever, disarming performance, but this is Gleeson's show, his character finally rounded out by his gruff but still tender relationship with his terminally ill mother (the spot-on Fionnula Flanagan), whom he sneaks drinks and takes out to the pub. The rest of the supporting cast, including the three villains -- Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot -- get good lines here and there but are flimsy types. The visual aspect is just as riotous, with unexpected bright colors popping out at the eyes (cinematography by Larry Smith). The Guard is perhaps not a life-altering film, but it is unjust that films like Midnight in Paris, Bridesmaids, or Margin Call receive nominations for Best Original Screenplay, when McDonagh's script crackles with so much more energy and is sharp as a whip.

3 comments:

Todd Babcock said...

I have no ax to grind with Jonah Hill but find this nomination baffling. I guess if you repeat hyperbole enough times it becomes truth.
I would add Gleason to the nomination list along with McDonagh's screenplay.

Charles T. Downey said...

That was the worst part, that Jonah Hill, who is very funny, was really dull.

Mark Barry said...

Enjoyed Moneyball, best work Jonah Hill has done, nomination - there have been worse. Saw the Guard last night not knowing what to expect, loved it, dark humor Gleeson was great. And Irish cast! Been saying fookin' all day.