Film Review: “Moneyball”

by Jason LeRoy on September 23, 2011

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in MONEYBALL

starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Kerris Dorsey

written by: Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin

directed by: Bennett Miller

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some strong language

One of the benefits of having absolutely zero knowledge of sports history is that when movies like Moneyball come along, I get to be surprised by the plot. When I heard that a movie was being made about the underdog victory of a Bay Area baseball team, I assumed it was about the Giants, because they had a big thing recently (right?). I actually forgot that Oakland also had a baseball team until the movie started. Then I was like, “Oh, right, I think I’ve seen BART ads about that team.” Apparently in addition to public nudity and pot, the Bay Area is all about underdog baseball teams?

Brad Pitt stars as a man named Billy Beane, which was another source of confusion to me. Despite having a remarkably low aptitude for sports trivia, my gay trivia scores are off the charts, so when I heard “Billy Beane” and “baseball” in the same sentence, some gay trivia bell began tinkling in my brain. I was vaguely aware of a baseball person by that name who’d become one of the first professional athletes to come out as gay. This delighted me, so I settled in and began eagerly awaiting Brad Pitt’s coming out. Except he never did, because it turns out there are TWO men in baseball named Billy Beane! But the gay one is spelled Billy Bean. I mean, honestly. That would be like having dueling Bravo personalities named Andy Cohen and Andy Coen.

But I digress. Billy Beane is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. As he began the 2002 season, Billy found himself in a very tough spot. The previous season had ended in a heartbreaking loss, and three of his top players had been poached by teams with much higher budgets (apparently the A’s were like the panhandling beggar of their league). With extremely limited resources and nothing left to lose after this latest in a long procession of personal and professional failures – he is also dealing with his divorce from Sharon (Robin Wright), with whom he has a Sarah Vowell-esque guitar-playing daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey, who anachronistically sings “The Show” by Lenka to her father) – Billy decides to take a huge risk.

While attempting to negotiate some player trades, he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale graduate who studied economics. Peter has an innovative and revolutionary approach to the concept of assembling a team, crunching years of data and player stats into a series of reports explaining who would actually be best for the team and why. His findings seem preposterous to everyone involved, flying in the grizzled faces of the farty old white men who normally do the scouting, as well as Billy’s team manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But Billy makes a leap of faith and decides to put all of his trust in Peter, who has complete confidence in his findings. So Billy and Peter assemble their unlikely dream team of misfits and rejects, bracing themselves for a truly memorable season.

While Moneyball ultimately has a conventional story arc, it is not your typical sports movie. It is measured and academic, dry and contemplative, feeling every bit as long as its 133-minute run time. This is not surprising given that it’s directed by Bennett Miller, in his first film since the Oscar-winning Capote, and adapted for the screen by Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). The crackling dialogue of the first half gives way to a more subdued second half, putting the audience through a much lengthier “rough patch” before the inevitable victory than just about any other sports film I’ve seen.

Much has been made about this finally being Brad Pitt’s Oscar moment, as if he’s some kind of criminally overlooked Glenn Close-style thespian and his acting abilities are the main reason why everyone knows his name. And it does seem likely that he’ll score a nomination, pitting him against his fellow aging pretty-boy Leonardo DiCaprio for Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. The role of Billy Beane certainly fits Pitt like a glove; he gets to be morose and wistful, subtle and soulful, doggedly determined yet constantly in the shadow of failure. And, of course, he looks bronzed and impeccably coiffed, even with skin that shows his age and a dorky Coach Taylor wardrobe. As Peter Brand, Jonah Hill gives another fascinating, quietly unnerving performance. He is surprisingly proving to be a master of the unexpected.

Moneyball is about much more than just the behind-the-scenes business of baseball. It is a smart, thoughtful rumination on the psychology of failure, the value (or lack thereof) of winning, discerning which victories truly matter, faith and reason, making hard decisions, economic disparity, and the difficult work of addressing and changing a systemic problem. It asks what we talk about when we talk about baseball, and by extension, any broken American institution.

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