2011, PG-13, 133 min. Directed by Bennett Miller. Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Kerris Dorsey, Chris Pratt, Reed Diamond, Stephen Bishop.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 23, 2011
Moneyball is a smart, funny, and thoughtful baseball movie that tells us more about what happens in the managers’ offices than out on the ball field. In the course of analyzing and displacing the shibboleths of America’s favorite pastime, Moneyball becomes a study of how newer models of evaluation can overtake outmoded ways of thinking – be it in baseball or any other endeavor. In this sense, it is certain to appeal to viewers who couldn’t care less about the sport as well as to fans of baseball and the many movies made about it. Moneyball also veers from the inspirational formula that usually underpins sports movies wherein the underdog player or team learns how to get his or its mojo working and ultimately triumphs in a rousing third-act finale.
The film is based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which details the true story of the turnaround strategy employed by Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) in the team’s 2002 season. Using statistics rather than conventional wisdom to repopulate his roster after his top three players are purchased by wealthier teams, Beane’s approach is radical, to say the least. Undervalued players could be obtained for fractions of the money a deep-pockets team like the Yankees regularly doled out, and in this way the little guys might be able to even the playing field. This path is revealed to him by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a composite character who is a Yale economics graduate who concocts formulas to forecast on-base percentages and ultimate wins. Brand’s approach and distinctly unathletic body arouse the ire of Beane’s scouts and other managers, whose hard-won instincts and experience are threatened by this numbers-based approach. The conflict is best depicted in the scenes with the club’s manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, mutable as ever as the gruff, overpowering field commander – a marked difference from his Oscar-winning appearance as the title character in Bennett Miller’s previous film, Capote). Also remarkable are the performances by Pitt and Hill, who both deliver the best and most modulated work of their careers.
The screenplay – initially written by Steven Zaillian and then rewritten by Aaron Sorkin after the narrative focus shifted when the original director, Steven Soderbergh, jumped ship a few days before filming was to begin – also does an amazing job of presenting this statistics-based approach without inundating the viewer with mind-boggling numbers and formulas. Humanizing complicated technical processes with the use of comfortable conversations in resonant dramatic scenes is reminiscent of the stellar accomplishments of Sorkin’s script for The Social Network, another film about a dense but topical subject. Nevertheless, some of Moneyball’s tangents are less instructive, particularly the scenes of Beane with his daughter Kerris (Dorsey), which, although delightful, add little to the story. Wright, as Beane’s ex-wife, is barely in the film (though in her one scene, she does appear with an unbilled Spike Jonze). Yet even when the film is shagging flies, it’s an engaging pleasure to watch.