Take it with a grain of salt. But Saturday night’s “official” Academy member screening of Moneyball seemed to draw the most enthusiasm since last May’s packed Midnight In Paris. At least judging by several unsolicited responses emailed to me by Academy members in attendance. Of course it helped that the film came in a very respectable No. 2 at the box office this weekend with just over $20 million. One Acad member told me it was “as crowded as it gets.” While another wrote, “I just went to the Academy screening of Moneyball, and it was packed! Pretty much filled besides a few random open seats.” The make-up of the Acad crowd was described as “older than usual, and a lot of new faces” and by another member in attendance as “definitely older than I would have expected. But there was great reaction throughout the film and big applause at the end for Brad and Jonah.” Another opined that “the lighter moments played well, which as you know is always telling. The few jokes were responded to well. There was warm applause at the end. But personally I gauge baseball movies by the emotional swelling I get in my throat at least once. I didn’t get that here.”
I would say that’s because this is a sharp and cool and savvy film more about the business of baseball than anything else. This person also wondered whether Sony will move it into the Golden Globes comedy category even though it is probably perceived more as a drama. “If it’s a comedy, that means Pitt is a lock for Best Comedy actor,” they said. I posed that question to one of the film’s consultants (who called the Academy screening a “home run”) and it hadn’t been discussed. “I can’t imagine it.” Then again, last year another Sony flick with Pitt’s wife, The Tourist, was shoehorned into comedy and got three key nominations. You never know the twist and turns of these things, particularly this early in the season. Then again, producer Scott Rudin, who has two other films likely competing in the drama categories (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close), might want to try and spread the wealth Globes-wise. I can tell you Moneyball is a LOT funnier than The Tourist, and I noticed quite a few laughs when I saw it at a Los Angeles-area theater Sunday evening for a second time.
Even though these Academy screenings aren’t a scientific barometer of a film’s eventual Oscar chances, they can be useful, particularly in gauging Academy voter interest in even seeing a contender. It’s rare to see the Samuel Goldwyn theater in Beverly Hills completely full at the official screenings. But I imagine members are starving for something thought to be “awards worthy” at this early point, especially since reviews have been so good, with an astounding 94% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes and a nearly perfect 97% among top critics. It doesn’t get much better than that. Moneyball, however you define it, is clearly a Best Picture contender at this point, and Pitt and Jonah Hill would seem to be top contenders for acting nods.
Looking at the upcoming Academy screening schedule for October, there isn’t a whole lot of Best Picture fodder being shown. Except perhaps The Ides Of March from Pitt and Academy pal George Clooney at the Sunday matinee on October 9th. Other October official screenings with any potential at all include 50/50 next Saturday afternoon and Pedro Almodovar’s foreign-language hopeful The Skin I Live In on October 8. And later in the month some smaller “maybes” like Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Like Crazy, and Anonymous.
Other films being presented to the Academy membership are Dream House (a horror film not even being screened in advance for critics), Margaret (delayed five years and finally getting released), Pearl Jam Twenty, Kevin Smith’s self-distributed Red State, Dirty Girl, horror remake The Thing, Real Steel (which does boast a surprisingly terrific kid performance from newcomer Dakota Goyo), Paramount’s musical remake of Footloose, nearly straight-to-DVD Trespass, the Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson bird-watching comedy The Big Year, Oranges and Sunshine, The Women on the 6th Floor, and the long-gestating The Rum Diary with Johnny Depp. It’s unlikely any of those will elicit the same wanna-see factor with the Academy as Moneyball did this weekend. The big question now is whether this baseball movie can go where few others have: into the Best Picture lineup.