Moneyball isn’t the ultimate baseball nerd movie. That’s a shame, because the book was the ultimate baseball nerd book and it still had all the trappings and great situations to warrant an effective and cinematic experience. Pleasing baseball nerds is a really bad business decision for a motion picture. Knowing the Moneyball isn’t the book is alleviated by the fact it’s much more approachable and consistently funny. It’s an audience movie. A much more successful venture than had it solely aimed for the baseball purists. Then again, the entire baseball concept of Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane defies pleasing the purists so maybe it’s calculated justice. Moneyball secretly injects the magic of baseball by way of laughs, tension, and really great dialogue.
As a result, Moneyball is the best baseball movie since Bull Durham.
Billy Beane was a baseball player who had all the potential in the world and saw it come crashing down in mediocrity who was then born of the ashes as a fearless and pioneering front office executive. What he began has taken root in many baseball organizations, including the Boston Red Sox, a team which went from colossal underachievers to the class of baseball with two very big rings over the past decade. Rather than becoming some sort of Sabermetric (the term used to describe the new school approach to baseball statistics) treatise, the film showcases one man driven by his passion, his fury, and his violent hatred of failure. With Brad Pitt saying the words written by scribes with surnames like Zaillian and Sorkin, it’s quite effective.
The film begins as the 2001 baseball season comes to a close. Though a small to medium market team, the Oakland Athletics are always competitive but after losing major ballplayers Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen to more lucrative offers on bigger market teams the scouts and assistant managers are crunching numbers and poring over information to replace their statistics. An impossible task. Seeing this, the forward thinking Beane (Pitt) decides to go a different route and with the help of a newly graduated scholar (Jonah Hill) with an eye for obscure statistics they shake a hard-nosed institution at its foundation.
The core of the film is truly the balance of Pitt and Hill. It’s become routine for Brad Pitt to deliver fantastic performances, and his longevity and reliability is something many take for granted. It’s pretty much the hardest job in the film business. Here he delivers a nimble and deceptively loose performance as a conflicted and somewhat Machiavellian man. Beane walked a tightrope in 2002, making intellectual decisions with his balls and emotional decisions with his brain and there was considerable collateral damage. Moneyball and the people it focuses on could easily have been a tragic tale that kept its sport firmly entrenched in simpler, less ambition times. Jonah Hill, stripped of some of more sarcastic and biting humor than made him a star, is allowed to work his charm and intelligence to maximum effect. They’re a good pair and there are some moments where two very gifted comic actors are able to really have some fun. It helps that there’s a veritable “who’s who” of character actors on hand, with the fantastic Phillip Seymour Hoffman leading the way as the incorrigible Art Howe [who is portrayed as more of a puppet in the book] and reliable greats like Jack McGee, Nick Searcy, Vyto Ruginis [a favorite of mine from 90’s action flicks], Arliss Howard, Reed Diamond, Glenn Morshower [who was a fan of yours truly’s baseball skills when I hit bombs on set of Oscar-snubbed Grizzly Park during our baseball game], and Brent Jennings filling the margins with expertise. Some of these actors have only a line or two of dialogue but somehow they help elevate the film in ways others cant. It sells the institution of baseball so well. Older men with so many decades of knowledge being challenged by a hotshot ex-player and his number crunching kid sidekick. Awesome stuff, and if you know the game and the names involved it’s even more rewarding.
The idea behind Beanes strategy involved bringing in players who favored getting on base over power, speed, or even the team-oriented tactics like bunting, stealing, and sacrificing. On Base Percentage. As a result, Beane’s decision to take players whom other teams found worthless ended up being at the very least interesting. The film focuses on Scott Hatteberg, a catcher whose arm went to pot and became therefore worthless. Beane sees in him a high percentage guy who can learn first base. Comedy and inspiration follows. What’s amazing is how well the film (and the book which inspired it) holds a mirror to the baseball fans watched and scratched their heads over and makes it magnetic. One of the many things that makes baseball and movies such excellent bedfellows is the breadth of possibilities to mine humor, drama, and humanity from even the most subtle elements. Seeing a prideful athlete handed the bitter pill of his situation and watching this odd parade of “misfit toys” under Billy Beane’s tutelage and faith is oddly compelling. Explaining one’s love for baseball is difficult. It’s a feel thing. This film is similar. It has an odd structure, doesn’t follow a lot of cinematic rules, yet it still clicks.
Director Bennett Miller does a nice job of delivering a polished piece that wisely lets the actors run wild and sells the people on and off the field as legitimate [which many sports movies don’t] and though one can wonder what still bears original director Steven Soderbergh’s fingerprints the Capote helmer does very capable work. It’s not all golden. Some very powerful moments from the book aren’t on the screen, first and foremost being Beane’s hectic and tense drafting as he wheels and deals and schemes in his pursuit of players like Nick Swisher, Jeremy Brown, and Kevin “The Greek God of Walks” Youkilis. It’s alluded to, and Brown is used as a very apt metaphor in the film’s waning moments but one of the sacrifices the film makes is in brevity. Scenes involving Beane’s relationship with his daughter and ex-wife work well for a movie but they come at the cost of some of the nuts and bolts of what makes Moneyball such a compelling literary work. Luckily, there’s the unexpected surprise of seeing Spike Jonze onscreen for a few minutes and that’s never a bad thing. Moneyball is very good. Very easy to watch and enjoy, and it doesn’t weight an audience down with too much inside baseball, and when it does there’s either some nice visual imagery assisting or a load of one-liners or nice character moments. For hardcore baseball people it may feel a little slight but there’s no denying that it’s a damn fine piece of American filmmaking.
It’s really easy to wonder what the Steven Soderbergh version of this movie would have been. I think it’ll have probably been my favorite movie of all time, considering the combination of elements. As it stands it is an excellent and loose mainstream drama that is exceedingly entertaining and a film that has true crossover potential.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars