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.

★★★½☆ 

24 Responses to “Moneyball (2011)”

  1. “The streak, which winds up both the centerpiece and the payoff of the baseball portions, is finally defeated by its ultimate pointlessness.”

    I don’t know how well the film will work for me but the As failure to win it all doesn’t detract from Bean’s and the team’s achievements for me. I love that through smarts, innovation, and the courage to buck conventions a small team became more competitive and had an extended winning streak. What I wonder is whether the filmmakers can explore that in interesting ways rather than fall back on standard sports film crowd pleasing tropes.

  2. Like I said, I think it boils down to where you want to draw the line of success. In the film, Bean defines success as one thing and *spoiler* he does not achieve that. If you want to define success as making the playoffs for a couple of years and still winding up in the bottom half of attendance statistics, then I can’t really argue with that.

    Basically, I think the film falls down by trying to deliver the crowd pleasing tropes when they’re not really there.

    Soderbergh apparently wanted to make a story about how you can innovate and buck the system and that will carry you to a point for a period of time, but ultimately, the Goliath’s are going to win out. Sony rightly decided that no one would want to see that movie, but the one they came up with doesn’t totally work either.

    Originally I had a beef with the basic story being not entirely accurate, but even throwing out the fact that “moneyball” wasn’t the only element in the A’s success in 2002, the story still doesn’t get it done.

  3. I’ve stated my case in regards to this film, and fully understand Craig’s favorable but guarded assessment. My rating was a halfstar higher at 4.0. As far as the crowd pleasing elements, I must say I actually prefer that they are muted as it takes away the kind of sports movie manipulations that often compromises the material. Beane’s dysfunctional and mysterious demeanor actually works to the film’s advantage, where one is encouraged to think and read between the lines, and not be too involved in the emotional aspects aside from the natural flag waving for the 20 game winning streak.

    You do a marvelous job there defining the Pitt/Hill chemistry that fuels the film.

  4. The Soderbergh interpretation sounds interesting. I don’t see any incompatibility between celebrating the measure of success achieved (or moneyball’s contribution to it) and acknowledging that it ultimately wasn’t enough to dethrone the bigger clubs. But I can understand why Hollywood didn’t care for it. It flies in the face of the infantile myth that anyone or any group can achieve the most unlikely of successes so long as they have enough gumption and perseverance.

  5. I’m just nagged by the feeling there’s an interesting story here, but the team of screenwriters who worked on it didn’t find it.

    It’s possible I’m just overlooking something that’s right in front of me.

    That would not be the first time (see: Drive)

  6. I don’t think you’re overlooking anything. I thought this movie was complete junk. The Soderbergh interpretation sounds infinitely better than what ended up being produced.

  7. Wow, that’s the first genuinely negative response I’ve heard so far. I’m giving it a pass because I really enjoyed Pitt/Hill. Did you not even like them all that much?

  8. I saw Moneyball this evening and don’t know where to begin in adding to this great discussion here. Suffice it to say I liked the film, probably more than Craig did. However, I do believe that the piece faltered a bit in some of the later sequences. This I attribute to the screenplay’s rocky road ending in a destination less pleasing then the trip.

    I’m certanly glad the film didn’t take the sentimental route that so many sports-related films do. Also, I quite enjoyed much of Pitt’s performance, which registered a volatile but appealing undercurrent of anger, a potential even of menace, that one could see may have occurred before.

    For a story based on true events and characters, there’s still room for a little controversy, for example the portrayal of manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — a character that I read somewhere was “fictional” but nevertheless having the same name (!) as the person on whom it was based. Howe apparently is displeased with the portrayal of him and the facts. Also, a somewhat combative moment between Beane and another character apparently never occurred, and the guy apparently is as steamed about it as Howe.

    Scenes involving Billy Beane’s personal life worked earlier in the film but at least one occurring later seemed out of place and unnecessary.

    What I also remember enjoying is the atmosphere and tone of the thing, almost downbeat at times but kept from being that way through writing, acting, and even the way it was framed and shot.

    The Soderbergh thing sounds interesting, maybe even moreso than this film. But I still like the idea that this one is out there.

  9. The only thing that I thought made this film watchable was the performances by Pitt and Hill. They were indeed excellent, but I felt the script and the direction were horrid. I don’t believe that the people making this film had any idea what they wanted to say or how to say it. Nothing makes any sense. You got the A’s comming off of a 100 win season and all of a sudden 25 games into the next season everyone in the organization wants to fire the GM? Huh? That just doesn’t happen.

    They portray Beane as having no respect from anyone in Baseball and then all of a sudden in the middle of the film during the trade scene, everyone is afraid of Beane saying that he is fleecing them. So what does baseball think he is? A genius or an idiot? The film just flip flops around.

    Why is Phillip Seymour Hoffman in this film? What does his character actually do? How is he essential to anything? Every scene between Beane and Howe is identical. The same conversation happens about 6 times in the movie.

    The 20 win streak was a joke. Anyone who is involved in sports knows streaks are nice, but it’s championships that matter. Beane states himself in the movie that the streak is meaningless, so why is the audience supposed to care?

    I have read and enjoyed both The Blind Side and Moneyball many times. I was highly dissapointed by The Blind Side movie, but it is a far superior film than the Moneyball film because even though it as well differs from actual events, it knows the story it wants to tell and does an efficient and emotionally engaging job of doing so.

  10. “The 20 win streak was a joke. Anyone who is involved in sports knows streaks are nice, but it’s championships that matter. Beane states himself in the movie that the streak is meaningless, so why is the audience supposed to care?”

    Simple. The audience DOES care because the streak is an all-time record as coveted as Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak for many baseball fans. The film rightly built up the drama of this ‘event’, and made it the film’s narrative and stylistic centerpiece.

    “Nothing makes any sense. You got the A’s comming off of a 100 win season and all of a sudden 25 games into the next season everyone in the organization wants to fire the GM? Huh? That just doesn’t happen.”

    Really? In baseball managers are fired for losing a playoff series. And what would be your beef here that would hold the film accountable on this point? It is only following the acclaimed book and historical reality Did you feel that the film was obligated to change that to reflect falsehoods?

    “So what does baseball think he is? A genius or an idiot?”

    That is the primary fascination of the film and the character!

    “Why is Phillip Seymour Hoffman in this film? What does his character actually do? How is he essential to anything? Every scene between Beane and Howe is identical. The same conversation happens about 6 times in the movie.”

    Let’s see. Maybe because Hoffmann is an excellent character actor? Who would YOU counterpropose who would fit the bill of being “essential” to the film? The scenes between Howe and Beane are similar because of the inherent differences in their baseball philosophy and strategy.

    You praise Pitt and Hill yet you condemn the script, the one aspect of the film that just about everyone even the minority detractors are praising. How often do actors excel in a film with a horrid script?

  11. “I’m certanly glad the film didn’t take the sentimental route that so many sports-related films do. Also, I quite enjoyed much of Pitt’s performance, which registered a volatile but appealing undercurrent of anger, a potential even of menace, that one could see may have occurred before.”

    Brilliant point here Pierre. There is no sentiment in this film, in part as a result of the the sometimes cryptic nature of Pitt’s characterization of Beane. He’s one of the most fascinating characters Pitt has ever portrayed, without a hint of teh sentimental trappings that I thought were problematic in THE BLIND SIDE.

    I agree with your summary assessment. This is NOT a great film and never will be on repeat viewing.

    It’s a solid four star movie (on a rating scale of five)

  12. “Really? In baseball managers are fired for losing a playoff series”

    Yes in baseball managers are hired and fired all the time. But GM’s are a very stable positions with little to any movement. Case in point Red Sox collapse this year. Manager Terry Francona gone, GM Theo Epstein is still there. This is a very common occurence and GM’s are generally only fired after continuous losing seasons without progress.

    “Simple. The audience DOES care because the streak is an all-time record as coveted as Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak for many baseball fans. The film rightly built up the drama of this ‘event’, and made it the film’s narrative and stylistic centerpiece”

    Sorry, but if the central character of the film calls what just happened on screen meaningless, I don’t care about it anymore.

    “Let’s see. Maybe because Hoffmann is an excellent character actor? Who would YOU counterpropose who would fit the bill of being “essential” to the film? The scenes between Howe and Beane are similar because of the inherent differences in their baseball philosophy and strategy”

    I agree Hoffmann is an excellent actor. What I am saying is his character in the film does nothing and goes nowhere. From what I got from the book Howe disagreed with a lot of what was done by Beane. Howe was given a ton of credit for how that season went by the public, went to the New York Mets and fell flat on his face. That is relevant to the movie. Why is it not there? Howe, in the movie represents old school baseball thinking. There is no resolution to his story.

  13. BlackXinu you do raise some legitimate points, perhaps because you may have viewed this as a baseball film, which I did not. The Howe character, for example, though well acted, was a bit of a problem for me, as it seemed a bit contrived for the purpose of dramatic storytelling.

    Nevertheless, I found the film oddly moving in ways I hadn’t expected. It’s less commercial than I thought it would be. I liked the first scene where Beane visits with his ex-wife and her husband. Here and elsewhere there’s an undercurrent one doesn’t often see. And this is due to more than just the acting.

    Even though talent was involved in the writing, there were too many fingers in the pot to make the piece perfectly coherent and focused. All that aside, I still found it interesting for the most part.

    I agree that The Blind Side was a better film to the extent that it was oddly enjoyable and more focused. But it also was more simplistic and hokey albeit more uplifting. Moneyball had better talent through and through although no one hit a homer (except Hatteburg, of course).

  14. The central character’s bizarre behavior is the entire fascination of the film. Of course he will say the streak is meaningless, as he is trying to inspire his players to understand that a mid-season winning streak can’t be sat on, with the playoffs looming. As a lifelong baseball fan I appreciate the towering significance of a team winning 20 games in a row, especially since it was only done this single time. Bennett Miller saw the importance too and used this arc as the centerpiece of the film. One of the paramount joys of this film (from where I am standing anyway) is that it made you feel that the remarkable winning streak was far more of an accomplishment than the end-of-season failure was in comparison.

    I honestly didn’t feel that Hoffmann’s character went nowhere as you claim. He was more of a symbol in this story arc, in that his behavior towed the company line so to speak. I am admittedly at a disadvantage with you here as you read the book and I did not. So I do respect the conclusions you came to even if I sounded kind of curt earlier on.

    I don’t think it was unreasonable at all to understand the reason why many wanted to can the general manager after the 100 win season as his methods were bizarre and unorthox, and they flew in the face of fans’ affections with players they had come to love. This is of course is one of the major points of the story.

    But fair enough, you present your case well, and this film for all it’s positive attributes is not a Top Ten of the Year film. It certainly does not rate with the likes of:

    Field of Dreams
    Bull Durham
    The Natural
    Bang the Drum Slowly
    Eight Men Out
    The Bad New Bears
    The Pride of the Yankees

    Yet, it seems the film is taking the country by storm both in the critical ranks and with audiences. Go figure.

    Anyway, you are a gentleman.

  15. I’ve got to take Xinu’s side on the streak. It was put in there for audience interest, and I’m sure it was fun for the A’s fans at the time, but it is nothing like Dimaggio’s hitting streak. For one thing, even Bob Costas says in the film that a streak like that is as much luck as anything. Some of the greatest teams in the game never managed more than 6 or 7 games in a row. It’s just the way the ball bounces sometimes. Literally. As an individual achievement, a hitting streak is different. There is still luck, but I think less so.

    I do have to disagree with Xenu to a point on the controversy around Beane at the beginning of 2002. None of the established writers or fans of the game liked Bill James’ ideas and they didn’t like losing Giambi and Damon. It looked like Beane took a winning team and destroyed it. That it was cheap ownership’s fault didn’t really matter.

    Having said that, you knew Beane’s job was never really in any danger, even if the fans didn’t, the ownership knew he was doing the best that could be done, probably better, with what he had. That I think sapped some of the drama from the story from me. There was little really at stake.

    Also, I think it’s a cheat to say the movie is smarter than the usual sports movie just because it denied the audience the usual sappy/happy ending. It’s the kind of thing that allows critics to enjoy something that is otherwise aimed at a mass audience because it feels edgier, but… eh. Within limits this story had to stick to the facts, and these were the facts. It wasn’t some stroke of narrative inspiration.

    Had they been really interested in challenging audiences, they would’ve stuck with Soderbergh’s vision and cut out all the stuff with the family and daughter.

    Overall, I agree with Pierre’s comment “Even though talent was involved in the writing, there were too many fingers in the pot to make the piece perfectly coherent and focused” This seems like the film’s biggest flaw to me. It was 3 different movies and they didn’t quite work together seamlessly. I think there were differing ideas about what this movie should be (as evidenced by Soderbergh getting taken off to begin with) and it shows. Rather than a movie that has the balls to have an unhappy ending, I see a movie that tried its damndest to make lemonade out of lemons but didn’t quite pull it off.

  16. “I’ve got to take Xinu’s side on the streak. It was put in there for audience interest, and I’m sure it was fun for the A’s fans at the time, but it is nothing like Dimaggio’s hitting streak. For one thing, even Bob Costas says in the film that a streak like that is as much luck as anything. Some of the greatest teams in the game never managed more than 6 or 7 games in a row. It’s just the way the ball bounces sometimes. Literally. As an individual achievement, a hitting streak is different. There is still luck, but I think less so.”

    Oh I completely disagree with you there. A 20 game winning streak is much more than a significant achievement in baseball, and the record achieved by the A’s during that 1992 season is one of the most coveted and celebrated in the sport. As a lifelong Yankee fan and fellow Italian-American I have revered Di Maggio’s streak through my life, and hold it in the highest esteem, but a 20 game winniong streak is still an astounding achivement. Yes there is luck here, but that’s all part of the game of baseball. Miller used this magnificent achievement as a major hook of this film, as well as he should have.

    At the end of the day it’s value judgement. I feel the achievement practically matches a World Championship, and I can understand why it was a centerpiece in the film. When you say that some of the greatest teams in the sport only managed 6 or 7 consecutive wins, that is precisely why I feel this accomplishment is so extraordinary. Miller did sense it would be a hook for audience interest, but beyond that it’s a very big deal for even the casual baseball fan.

    But this is my position, and I can see why you (or anyone else) would feel differently of course.

  17. I should add that the audience I saw it with is on Sam’s side regarding the streak. They were totally into it.

  18. Well, yes — the winning streak was a big deal — especially considering the naysayers and all the naysaying leading up to it.

    I think this is another case of a talented bunch of people getting together and coming up with something that shows talent but doesn’t quite reach the heights. Less than the sum of its parts, but still of value.

    I read somewhere that Bennett Miller (the director) is a lifelong friend of Philip Seymour Hoffman. This might shed light on the hard-hitting interpretation of the Howe character.

  19. I saw Moneyball last night and, while I’m more enthusiastic than you are, Craig, I’m generally in agreement about its strong and weak points.

    The factual distortions didn’t bother me as much, because films do that all the time. Not every member of a 26-man team can get a shout out, even in a 133-minute-long film.

    What did bother me was how scatter-shot the script was. It spends too much time resolving conflicts that aren’t particularly interesting, like the issue of the first baseman. Then lot of effort is taken to explain why Giambi’s brother is a good bet in spite of his lifestyle and personality, but that ends up being the reason why he’s fired.

    The thematic inconsistencies (What’s winning? What’s losing?), though, are part of Beane’s character arc. The film is about the rekindling of his love for the game and eventual acceptance of being “the little guy” fighting the good fight.

    I wish the film would have focused more on Beane and the actual impact of what he and DePodesta did. The moments between Hill and Pitt really do shine, as does that beautiful ending. I would have liked to see Soderbergh’s take on the film, but I’m not sure his interpretation would have ended up any better.

    As it is, Miller’s version does a good job explaining what happened and why it’s important without getting bogged down in minutia. And the human story that serves as the film’s backbone helps explain why Beane went so far out on that limb, and is pretty compelling in itself.

  20. I don’t want to belabor a point that doesn’t seem to matter to anyone anyway, but my issue is more with ideas that are the very foundation of the book and provide the spine of the movie which are debatable at best.

    Did Beane really change the game with “sabermetrics” or did strong pitching and a superstar player, both discovered and developed by the supposedly villainous scouts, really fuel the team’s success? If I had to pick one, it would be the latter, but that doesn’t make for as crowd-pleasing of a fairytale, which is what Moneyball ultimately is.

  21. Considering I have no clue which pitching or player you are referring to, I have to imagine the film comes off better to the uninitiated. This could be a film where the more you know about the subject, the more flaws you find in the conceit.

    For me, though, this is a case where ignorance truly is bliss (or maybe respectful admiration is a better term — I like the film, but it won’t be appearing in my top ten for the year).

  22. Suffice it to say that a team considers itself lucky if it has 2 strong starting pitchers and Oakland that year had 3 amazing ones. Of course they were all eventually traded away and never lived up to the same greatness, but they clicked that year and it had absolutely nothing to do with Moneyball. They came up through the Oakland minor league system thanks to the much maligned scouts.

    The player was Miguel Tejada who had an amazing season offensively and also came up through the system.

    Again. The scouts.

    To overlook these 4 players when you’re marveling at how great the A’s did that year is kind of silly really.

    Having said that, I get the movie is about more than that and I really did like a lot of it.

  23. Sadly, the Giants got the washed up versions of Zito and Tejada.

  24. lol. that’s baseball!

    In the stock market they buy on the rumor and sell on the news, but in baseball they buy on the news and sell on the bust.

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