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The comparisons to The Social Network aren’t hard to miss — the same producers, the film’s writer Aaron Sorkin (along with the estimable Steven Zaillian) and a book about a revolutionary concept that became a game-changer. And yet Moneyball is a different sort of movie. The focus gets split between two male protagonists and the story isn’t as electrifying. The Social Network was about a highly unusual alpha dog; Moneyball is the story of a highly unusual underdog. No one remakes the world here. But someone does remake the grand old American game of baseball. And the movie does achieve something nearly impossible: Someone who doesn’t even like the sport may care about Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland Athletics.
With Brad Pitt playing Billy and Jonah Hill as a Yale economics grad whose analysis of players helps that small-market team reach the playoffs when everyone else writes them off for dead, Columbia Pictures looks good perhaps not for a home run but certainly a long double or even an exciting scoot around the bases for a head-first triple. Overseas markets are probably a wash, however, except in baseball countries such as Japan or certain Latin American nations.
The movie is based on the Michael Lewis book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which explained how Beane, an ex-big leaguer and GM of the A’s, put together a playoff team despite having three of his star players lured away by teams brandishing big bucks. He did this not by watching men swing bats or run bases but by looking at reams of statistics that told him which players could produce the most runs while forcing opponents to score the fewest. It’s safe to say that few if any GMs today ignore such data.
Sorkin and Zaillian, however, cut through all those equations and mathematical formulas to tell a relatively simple story: How a guy with almost no chance of winning develops a secret weapon. This would be a terribly young and highly unathletic Yale grad, Peter Brand (Hill), who sees an entirely different game than scouts and coaches do. Where an old-timer sees a guy with a beautiful swing or an ugly girlfriend — the latter means the player lacks confidence, you understand — Peter looks for a guy with a great on-base percentage. After all, more guys on base mean more opportunities to score.
Coming off a highly successful 2001 season, the A’s are, in Billy’s words, “organ donors.” The Yankees and the Red Sox, teams flush with money, flash the cash and scoop up all of Oakland’s best players, making off with what seems like the heart and brains of the team.
But in a rival team’s office, Billy happens to meet Peter. Having really nothing to lose other than games he’s bound to lose anyway, he buys into Peter’s approach to player evaluations.
This happens in the movie rather too abruptly, but Billy is, quite rightly, portrayed as an unusual GM. First of all, he played the game, which few usually have. Then he’s a maverick and loner without much relationship skills — he’s divorced and lives only for the game — or reliance on anyone but himself. He chews tobacco constantly, a really filthy habit, and pays little attention to opinions unless they coincide with his own.
The movie proceeds through the improbable 2002 season with continual flashbacks to Billy’s own story — how he was a can’t-miss player (played by Reed Thompson, who looks uncannily like a young Pitt), who signed for big money rather than accept a Stanford scholarship. But this never works as intended. Since Beane wound up working longer in the game than many of its stars, this was hardly a bad decision.
There also are attempts to drag in his personal life, a wife (Robin Wright) now remarried and a daughter (Kerris Dorsey). These would be superfluous scenes were it not for a winning performance by young Dorsey.
The heart of the movie lies in the vindication of Billy’s big gamble. This gets personified in two characters: the team’s manager, Art Howe, played by the magical Philip Seymour Hoffman as a grumpy old man looking out for his own self-interest, and Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a lame-armed catcher transformed into a first baseman to get his terrific on-base percentage into the lineup. Scott is at least as doubtful as his manager, but the movie gives you the sense that Beane willed this player — and this team — to success. You keep looking for the devil who bought Billy’s soul but here, truly, the only devil is in the statistical details.
Don’t like to see too much baseball, you say? Well, join Beane. He never watches a game. He stays in the clubhouse, catching moments on radio or TV or gets text messages from Peter. So the movie is about a master working behind the scenes like a political strategist or boxing trainer, not about the game itself.
The scenes between Pitt and Hill are all delights as they struggle to find a working language and then a means to impose their newfound will on the most tradition-minded of sports. It’s a great comedy act, with Pitt insisting that Hill complete his thoughts or amplify their concepts to the slack-jawed baseball scouts.
So, the film fits nicely into the realm of The Bad News Bears or Major League, of underdogs who shock the world. Director Bennett Miller, who coaxed a satisfying movie out of unlikely material with Capote, puts Moneyball through a workman-like pace. If the movie fails to achieve the knockout punch of Social Network, this may be because another film altogether was originally imagined. Steven Soderbergh was set to direct Zaillian’s script when Columbia pulled the plug due to concerns with the budget and changes in the original screenplay. One can only wonder what that version would look like as Soderbergh, like Beane, is not one to do things according to old formulas. Nevertheless, this Moneyball stands on its own as a strong, rewarding effort to pull unusual personalities and a timeless story from a welter of Inside Baseball.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Scott Rudin Productions, Michael De Luca Productions
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Kathryn Morris, Robin Wright, Tammy Blanchard
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenwriters: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin
Story by: Stan Chervin
Based on the book by: Michael Lewis
Producers: Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz, Brad Pitt
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Mark Bakshi, Andrew Karsch, Sidney Kimmel
Director of photography: Wally Pfister
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Music: Mychael Danna
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
No rating, 143 minutes
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