THE STORY – Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager of the Oakland A’s, one day has an epiphany: Baseball’s conventional wisdom is all wrong. Faced with a tight budget, Beane must reinvent his team by outsmarting the richer ball clubs. Joining forces with Ivy League graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Beane prepares to challenge old-school traditions. He recruits bargain-bin players whom the scouts have labeled as flawed, but have game-winning potential.
THE CAST – Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wight, Chris Pratt, Philip Seymour Hoffman & Kerris Dorsey
THE TEAM – Bennett Miller (Director), Steven Zaillian & Aaron Sorkin (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 133 Minutes
“Moneyball” is about a baseball team that lost the World Series. Actually, that’s incorrect. It’s about a team that didn’t even make the World Series. The film charts the rise and fall of the 2002 Oakland Athletics, whose brief success helped to revolutionize how the sport has been played in subsequent decades.
The phrase “inside baseball” is often used to describe a complicated or technical topic. If handled incorrectly, “Moneyball” could have been the ultimate “inside baseball” film. Its title is derived from a sabermetric approach to scouting and analyzing players, as opposed to traditional stats like home runs or RBIs. Riveting, right? Well, director Bennett Miller manages to make it riveting through his methodical, character-driven approach. Miller’s other films, “Capote” (2005) and “Foxcatcher” (2014), are studies on ambition, and “Moneyball” follows suit by focusing on the team’s determined general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt).
Pitt, who has often been compared to Robert Redford, gives the most Redford-esque performance of his career. He strikes the perfect balance between superficial aloofness and coiled intensity and knows which to bring to the surface, depending on the scene. Beane is a tactician at the end of the day, and it’s to the film’s credit that it never asks the character or Pitt to break from this mindset and resort to motivational speeches or melodramatic outbursts. In lesser hands, it could have led to a one-dimensional performance, but Pitt has the gravitas and the nuance (his eyes, like Redford’s, are constantly active) to make it compelling. It’s a genuine movie star turn.
The metronome that is Pitt gives the supporting cast room to play different notes. Jonah Hill shines in his first dramatic role, delivering some of the film’s best lines and providing a humorous, nervy presence for his co-star to undercut. Peter Brand is the character most saddled with exposition, but it turns out that years of improvising on the set of Judd Apatow comedies primed Hill for whatever the script could throw his way.
Robin Wright and Chris Pratt are solid in otherwise stock parts (the ex-wife and the underdog athlete), while Philip Seymour Hoffman is oddly mesmerizing as the team’s manager, Art Howe. Hoffman is barely in the film, but he gives the character such a melancholic disposition that you must step back and consider whether Beane is doing the right thing.
“Moneyball” is expertly constructed, so it should come as no surprise that it was penned by two of the best screenwriters of the last thirty years: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. The former turned in the first draft, and the latter was brought in for rewrites after receiving Zailian’s blessing. Disparate though their styles may be, the duo ends up working effectively in tandem. The plotting and overall shape of the film feels more indebted to Zaillian, while the snappy dialogue between Scouts and Beane’s relationship with his daughter Kasey (Kerris Dorsey) feels more Sorkin.
The Kasey subplot is a good segue into the film’s major flaw. “Moneyball” is a predominantly airtight script. Still, the few times it lags are when it steps away from the boardrooms and spends time on the pleasant, occasionally stilted dynamic between father and daughter. Their scenes together are fine, but they don’t add to our perception of Beane as a character nor utilize Kasey in a way that makes her thematically relevant. “Moneyball” ends with Kasey singing a tune she wrote for her dad, which is baffling given how little she plays into the final act. If these choices were, in fact, Sorkin’s, then he would execute them much better in his screenplay for “Steve Jobs” (2015).
The real emotional crux of the film is between Beane and baseball. He was a guy who was drafted young and turned out to be a bust and an organization that he grew increasingly jaded with. “Moneyball” doesn’t end with the A’s winning the game, but it does end with Beane realizing that he changed the game. A scene between Beane and Brand depicts this realization beautifully. They’re watching a tape of a minor league player who scrambles back to first base after falling down. The player is so worried about screwing up that he doesn’t realize he just hit a home run. Beane stops the tape, plays it back, and tenderly asks: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” How, indeed.