Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball
(Note: I decided I can’t really talk about the good and bad of Moneyball without spoiling the historic circumstances around which the movie is based. If you don’t know how the 2002 baseball season turned out and want to maintain that element of suspense, don’t read this review.)
“How did they ever make a movie out of Lolita?” So went the refrain they used to market Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel. While Michael Lewis is no Nabokov, you could ask the same question of his book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game which presents its own unique difficulties of adaptation. There’s nothing controversial about it, but how do you make a crowd pleaser out of a book about statistical baseball arcana that doesn’t have a traditionally happy ending? The solution is a bit of narrative jujitsu that makes the story ultimately about something other than the game around which we’re told everything revolves. In the end, it’s not about whether you win or lose and it’s not even about how you play the game. It’s about…being a good dad?
Moneyball tells the true-ish story of unconventional Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a failed baseball player and a failed husband faced with the challenge of fielding a winning team in the shadow of tight fisted ownership. Unable to spend the money to keep his high priced superstars, Beane decided he couldn’t beat major market teams like the Yankees at their own game. Instead, with the help of Yale economics educated Peter Brand (Jonah Hill as a stand in for real-life numbers nerd Paul DePodesta), Beane gambled on a theory utilizing undervalued statistics to find quality players who didn’t cost a fortune. As a result, Beane’s A’s were able to best their 2001 win total in 2002 despite having lost their two most famous players to bigger teams and in the process they were able to string together an unprecedented winning streak of 20 games.
Bravo for Beane. Here’s the problem (and this is a spoiler if you don’t know baseball history): the A’s didn’t make it to the World Series that year and haven’t in any year since. The 20 wins in a row is great and Moneyball milks it for all its worth in order to appeal to those in the audience who need to get their rah rah rocks off, but in the big picture it’s completely meaningless. Sure, it works in the moment and you can’t help but feel good rooting for these guys, but the pleasure is short lived and doesn’t hold up upon later reflection. Beane himself is quoted in the film as saying it doesn’t matter how many games you win if don’t win the last game of the season – in other words if you don’t win the World Series. He didn’t and hasn’t. While he may have popularized a new tool in player analysis and changed the face of the game to a degree, that tool was soon co-opted by other higher powered teams. A Moneyball end card leaves you with the cold fact that the big market Boston Red Sox hired Bill James, the guy whose mathematical research informed Beane and DePodesta’s strategy, and they went on to win the World Series in 2004. Beane meanwhile continues to look for that elusive piece of history.
To circumvent the uncomfortable fact that the A’s are and remain losers, one or more of the film’s three screenwriters – Stan Chervin, Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin all took a crack at one point or another – injected Billy Beane’s relationship with his young daughter into the plot. If he can’t win on the field, Beane can at least win at home, right? He’s even given a helpful visual metaphor courtesy of cohort Peter Brand involving a portly minor league hitter (that part has to be Sorkin’s whose fingerprints are all over it) which shows that sometimes winning and losing is all about knowing where to draw the line between the two. Sometimes a guy succeeds without even knowing it.
That’s all great and the final scene with Brad Pitt is strong enough to almost bring the film home when for a while it seems to be foundering, but it’s a long, frequently dull slog getting there. Endless moments are spent with the team and Beane fighting with ownership or his scouts or the team’s manager (a solid but underutilized Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an unsympathetic Art Howe) or even the players themselves just to get the team he wants on the field. We’re expected to believe (and care) that letting Scott Hatteberg play first base is the lynchpin to the entire A’s season. Even if that was true (it isn’t, just ask superstars Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, none of whom are even mentioned in the film) it’s kind of boring. The streak, which winds up both the centerpiece and the payoff of the baseball portions, is finally defeated by its ultimate pointlessness.
Luckily for Moneyball, it has a not-so-secret weapon in Brad Pitt who has rarely been more appealing. All the dull baseball stuff is jazzed up by his wonderful, laid back, effortlessly charming performance. It’s one of those engaged star performances that goes down easy but never feels lazy. Pitt knows exactly when to ramp up or tamp down the wattage. He’s great with the adults in the film and he’s also great with Kerris Dorsey who plays the daughter, but he’s got an especially great opposites-attract matchup with Jonah Hill.
On his own, Hill is terrific as a guy who knows he’s right and knows he’s the smartest guy in the room, but lacks the confidence to stand up for it. He brings a certain minimalist, guileless honesty to his comic roles and he uses that here to great effect. In fact, though Moneyball isn’t played for laughs per se, the performances of both Hill and Pitt are richly informed by the loose chords they both strike in comedy and it works beautifully.
In the end, maybe the Pitt/Hill right/left combo is enough. Add a couple of excellent and likable performances to a sharp and witty script, throw in a few rah rah sports moments on the way to an ending with a bigger message about winning and losing and you’ve got more than you get with a lot of more traditional sports movies. If you can let go of the hard realities of baseball, maybe you can just enjoy Moneyball in the moment and on its own terms.
Filed under: Review