By Richard Schickel
A bunch of the boys—the brain trust of the financially challenged Oakland Athletics baseball team—are sitting around chawing tobacco and chewing over prospects for the coming season. They have a problem. The A’s are not a bad team; they just don’t have enough money to compete with better-financed teams (their payroll is about a third that of the mighty Yankees). Their wisdom is traditional, some dating back to the beginnings of baseball, and gossipy. They dis a player for having a not-so-good-looking girlfriend; it shows he lacks confidence.
Enter Billy Beane (an adorable Brad Pitt), a failed former ballplayer, currently the A’s general manager, who thinks there must be a better way to field a good team for fewer bucks. He soon links up with a man called, for the purposes of this movie, Peter Brand (an expert Jonah Hill), a Yale economics graduate, computer nerd and baseball geek, who believes statistics driven baseball professionals are looking at all the wrong stats. There are relatively unknown players out there, obtainable for a song, who can deliver what the A’s need (the ability to somehow get on base) and have perhaps other skills that the film “Moneyball” doesn’t particularly go into. The pair set about obtaining these players and, lo, the Athletics quickly transform themselves from also-rans into authentic contenders.
There’s more to this story than a brief summary can contain. In mature capitalist enterprises, it is ever the fate of innovators to earn the contempt of standpatters, particularly members of their own organization, especially, in this case, Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the A’s manager, Art Howe. (Hoffman is underutilized in the role, but boy does he look the part.) Bill James is the avatar of most of the ideas Beane and Brand put into play, and he is mentioned briefly, but he is not yet in the trenches with them (he is now, working for the Boston Red Sox), madly wheeling and dealing for players, as they are in the movie’s most intense scenes. They also have a nice, mentoring relationship, with Beane toughening Brand up, teaching him, for example, how to fire a player as painlessly as possible.
As a matter of fact, Pitt is quite wonderful in the movie—cheeky, fast-moving, rarely doubting himself, especially when there are other people in the room. He is the current master of star acting. Whenever he’s on screen he dominates it, but with a sweet appeal that’s all his own.
In short, “Moneyball,” like the Michael Lewis best-seller it’s based upon, is a good story and people who have little interest in baseball don’t need to fear it. On the other hand, it has its largely overlooked problems. These include a Hollywood ending, which is mostly true, but is still a sports movie cliché. That, however, is not its deepest issue. The script, well-enough directed by Bennett Miller, is by two of Hollywood’s best writers, Steve Zaillian, with a rewrite by Aaron Sorkin, who cannot resist cliché, particularly in the development of Beane’s character. He is presented as a divorced dad, with a winsome child whom he loves dearly, if sometimes distractedly. (She keeps asking him if he’s about to be fired when his newly revised team doesn’t start winning immediately—a good question that she is the only one in the movie to raise.) I don’t know—this may represent the true state of their relationship, but it is also stale—we’ve seen it in dozens of movies. And it is not the only aspect of this movie that betrays its best impulses.
At its heart, “Moneyball” is a very original movie, as suggested by its on-again, off-again preproduction trials. We have not seen anything quite like it before—quirky, slyly funny, insider baseball as it’s never quite been examined on the screen before. This makes its descent into the familiar and the inspirational, shall we say, disappointing. This is not a fatal flaw. In the context of its moment, as we head toward the inevitably disappointing fall season, it is, in fact, quite a good movie. I don’t think it is entirely subversive to suggest that it might have been a little bit better.