In baseball circles, "moneyball" is a new solution to an age-old problem – how to evaluate players to assemble a winning team. In baseball movie circles, Moneyball is an equally fresh approach to a different old problem – how to make a sports flick with wide general appeal. As a formula for victory, moneyball has enjoyed only mixed success. As a film, Moneyball fares much better, first by signing a box-office star like Brad Pitt, then by turning the stately game into something few can resist – a smart and lively comedy of manners.
The source is the Michael Lewis book, a superbly researched account of the 2002 Oakland A's, their general manager Billy Beane, and his necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention strategy. Partly, the book is a lesson in harsh economics, the "necessity" that requires small franchises to compete with rich powerhouses like the Yankees on a third of the budget. Partly, it's a study in sabermetrics, the "invention" that applies a complex set of computer-generated measurements to assess the true worth of hitherto undervalued players – essentially, a tool allowing relatively impoverished GMs to shop for athletic bargains like a shrewd buyer at a garage sale.
But mainly, most intriguingly, the book is a character study of Billy Beane (Pitt), an enigmatic guy of many contradictions. That's where the film places its focus, checking out those contradictions and doing what comedies of manners always do – finding humour in the staid beliefs perpetuated by the class system of a closed society. Of course, such comedies are always fuelled by quick banter, which is pretty much the specialty of co-writer Aaron Sorkin. Here, the social network is located deep in the inner sanctum of the clubhouse, where Billy the rebel takes on the old guard.
This is his dilemma. The A's have just lost their three best players, all signed by affluent teams dangling big bucks. Cost-effective replacements must be found, but how? Says Beane: "We've got to think differently." However, sitting around the table like an ancient Greek chorus, the grizzled scouts are locked into their conventional wisdom, prizing only uber-athletes with expensive price tags. Ironically, as a brief flashback tells us, they prize the very sort of player Billy Beane used to be. Now comes the final irony. Billy was a "can't miss prospect" who missed, never amounting to much. In other words, in today's talent hunt, Beane is in the business of negating himself, of seeking out his less gaudy but more productive antithesis.
Help arrives in the unlikely shape of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a pudgy Yale grad with a degree in economics, zero baseball experience, a well-oiled computer and the strong opinion that "baseball thinking is medieval." Well, that heresy is music to Beane's desperate ears. So the comedy shifts into odd-couple terrain, the ex-jock teaming with the classic nerd to buck the establishment by putting the new math into embodied action. Enter the bodies, misshapen ones like Scott Hatteburg, a failed catcher cursed with a dumpy frame but blessed with what Brand's computer cherishes above all else – a knack for getting on base by any means necessary.
From there, it's one more case of David versus Goliath, as the cast-offs overcome a shaky start and their recalcitrant manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to embark on a record-setting, 20-game win streak. Exciting? Not really. This ain't Miracle on Ice here. The on-field action is muted, and the film suffers from a dearth of plot – another old but apparently essential convention.
Most baseball movies pursue the romance of the game – the romance of the flawed Adonis ( The Natural), the romance of nostalgia ( Field of Dreams), or simply the romance of the romcom ( Bull Durham). But, emphasizing cold statistical logic, sabermetrics is anti-romantic – disdaining the excitement of the stolen base or the artistry of the sacrifice bunt, it favours productivity over emotion.
To make amends, director Bennett Miller shifts his gaze from the diamond to his rough protagonist. As he did in Capote, another tale of a rebel attacking convention, Miller looks to inner conflicts for drama – Beane the calculated logician against Beane the fiercely intense, water-cooler-kicking competitor. But the script lacks the substance to mine that personal drama.
Wisely, then, Pitt chooses to mute his own performance and, wherever possible, head straight for the laughs – like the scene where he's the wily horse-trader hoodwinking his fellow GMs out of their lucrative assets.
Still, even Beane is obliged to admit, "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball." It's just as hard not to be romantic about baseball movies. In that sense, Moneyball is exactly like moneyball – infused with intelligence, amusing in its attacks on false gods, but way easier to admire than to love.
- Directed by Bennett Miller
- Written by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian
- Starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill
- Classification: PG