Moneyball: not your average baseball film
This fall, thousands of moviegoers will avoid seeing Moneyball out of a misbegotten belief that it is a baseball movie. They can be forgiven. Moneyball is being advertised as “The Inspirational Sports Movie of 2011,” with all of the requisite conventions that go along with the genre.
Commercials would have you believe that this is yet another story about a rag-tag team of losers (led, of course, by a coach who has everything on the line) who manages to rise above the low expectations only to win the big game. But in Moneyball, Brad Pitt doesn’t play a coach, he plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Most of the film does not take place on a baseball diamond, but rather in Beane’s corner office, or in his truck (he would rather drive aimlessly around Oakland than watch the games), or in the dingy locker rooms inside the Oakland Coliseum. It isn’t spoiling anything to tell you that the Oakland A’s don’t win the big game at the end of the film: in fact, they don’t even make it to the World Series (and they haven’t made it to the World Series in the 13 years that Beane has been their general manager). This is hardly the stuff of Remember the Titans, let alone Bull Durham.
At heart, Moneyball is a very funny drama about statistics and probabilities. That last sentence may seem to be a contradiction in terms. Yet this is a highly entertaining movie that manages to weave in a redemption story, a very subtle social commentary, and a comedy of manners all through a narrative that ostensibly has to do with Beane’s saber-metric approach to the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 regular season. Moneyball shares most of its creative DNA with a film released on the same weekend last year: The Social Network. Both films share the same screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) and claim to depict the inner-workings of two highly popular and lucrative pastimes (baseball and Facebook-ing). Both films depict a protagonist who struggles to introduce cutting-edge ideas within a system that insists on traditionalism (in this case, scouting). Most crucially, both films paint honest, though not necessarily sympathetic, portrayals of their main characters. Beane is a failed-baseball-player-turned-calculating-general-manager, prone to angry, demonstrative outbursts and lots of misplaced aggression. Pitt gives a great performance. He’s complemented by a very funny, buttoned-down version of Jonah Hill, who plays Beane’s right-hand man, assistant general manager Peter Brandt (modeled after former Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta). Their back-and-forth banter is one of the best features of the movie.
All that being said, Moneyball is probably not a great movie. For one thing, it’s long. The film clocks in at two hours and 13 minutes when it could probably stand to lose 20 minutes from its slow middle section. The film spends an inordinate amount of time on an August-September winning streak, and this contradicts the real achievement of Beane’s team: the application of sabermetrics in a highly traditionalized game. There are other flaws: a subplot involving Beane’s relationship with his daughter seems to have been tossed in during post-production. Phillip Seymour Hoffman has nothing to do as the stick-in-the-mud coach, Art Howe. The movie lacks a certain sense of magnitude that probably can’t be achieved in a movie about statistics. As an avid baseball fan, I take some offense to the dramatic liberties that Sorkin and director Bennett Miller take. But these are all small, subjective criticisms. You should go see Moneyball.