There’s a special joy in a mass market non-fiction book. It’s usually pretty light reading, but not condescendingly so. These books tend to be fairly well written, and they contain lots of cool facts and trivia that you can use at a party or dinner. They’re breezy but smart.
Moneyball the movie perfectly captures the experience of reading one of those books. Breezy but smart, it’s a well-told story, albeit one that never really engages on any emotional level. Moneyball is wearing many of the trappings of a sports movie, but it rarely truly feels like one.
Brad Pitt is Billy Beane, a former ballplayer who looked great on paper but bombed out in the big show. He’s now the General Manager of the Oakland As, a team that was in the crapper before the Yankees hired away their best players. The As are a minor team with a payroll that is dwarfed by the rich Yankees; Beane realizes that baseball is an inherently unfair sport and it’s almost impossible for him to compete with these big teams.
At least to compete with them the way they play. He ends up meeting Peter Brand, a kid straight out of the Ivy Leagues, who has a vision for using statistics to put together a baseball team that, while not the prettiest in the league or the showiest, will be likely to get to the playoffs. Along the way they have to deal with old school baseball types who believe the game is about heart, not about numbers.
Funnily enough, Moneyball agrees. While the first half is an agreeably wonky ride through (a very dumbed down version of ) baseball stats, the film’s second half suddenly decides it needs to get into a Bad News Bears sort of situation if we’re to give a shit about what’s happening. And so we end up with a bunch of pep talks and guys who have nothing but heart getting up to the plate and making that big hit that changes history.
The film also attemptst to get us emotionally involved by bringing in Billy Beane’s adorable moppet of a daughter, who represents the ‘real’ things at stake here, as if the future of the game of baseball wasn’t enough. I guess the kid is included for people like me, who know next to nothing about professional sports (amended: I know only what I have learned from sports movies), in an attempt to give us an in.
But there’s already an in, and I think that Moneyball ends up being less because the script - credited to Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin - doesn’t understand that. What I loved about last year’s The Social Network is that it approached the world of start ups with the belief that this stuff was exciting enough on its own; just watching people do smart, bold things was exciting, even if those smart, bold things are not traditionally cinematic. The same is probably true of the statistics-based stuff in Moneyball; I’m not sure I needed a bunch of hooey thrown in to make me ‘feel.’ I was feeling very excited about Brand and Beane being mavericks and weathering the odds all on my own.
Brad Pitt is great as Beane, a decent guy with a sparkle in his eye. Beane’s not a dreamer, but he’s in a position where the only decision that makes sense is to do something totally nuts. It’s a walk in the park for Pitt, a role that requires lots of charisma and relatable ‘guy’ness; Beane’s a baseball player but not a dumb guy or a jerk or a basket case. He’s trying to do right by his daughter and come to grips with the fact that he spent most of his adult life in a profession that ended up not being right for him.
He has great chemistry with Jonah Hill, playing Brand. But it’s a very specific chemistry; this isn’t a buddy movie, and there isn’t a big scene of these two opposites becoming friends. This isn’t a bromance. These are two alternative thinkers thrown together trying to do their best in a system that’s against them. Pitt is funny often enough, but Hill is the real comedic foil, doing lots of funny takes if not dropping actual jokes. It’s all in his reactions.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman shows up occasionally as Art Howe, the manager of the As who butts heads with Beane, bringing his own brand of exhausted irritation. It’s a minor role for Hoffman, but he’s a great villain for a piece like this - it isn’t that Howe wants the As to do badly, he’s just not as numbers-minded as Beane and Brand. His sin, his evil, is not being forward thinking, for being too wed to the romance of the game.
But again, the film is wed to that romance as well. It’s personified in Chris Pratt (from Parks & Rec) as a young, good guy player whose career has been ended by nerve damage. That is until Beane and Brand decide they want him not for his catching abilities but because he gets on base statistically enough to matter in their big numbers game. Pratt is great, bringing a wonderful, heart-warming aw shucks quality - he’s the baseball player we all imagine in our heads, not guys from New York with herpes and coke habits - and he personifies the romance of the game.
I imagine this struggle between the numbers and the romance are also at the heart of the book Moneyball; after all, nobody watches baseball because they love statistics. It’s the mystique of a guy at bat, dueling with a pitcher, the magic of a perfectly executed play against the odds. Baseball movies are male versions of weepies, most of the time, films that make guys cry about their dads and their childhoods and the great feeling of trying, whether or not you succeed. in the end Moneyball becomes one of those films, even though it briefly flirted with something a bit bigger and more interesting. There’s nothing wrong with the movie Moneyball becomes - it’s a hugely entertaining, sweetly diverting movie - but this isn’t baseball’s The Social Network.
Should it have been? Maybe I’m just bringing my own expectations to the film. Bennett Miller is a smart, stylish director, but this is no Capote. Capote and The Social Network both have intriguing, layered, hard to know characters at their heart; Moneyball has two pretty genial good guys at its heart.
And Moneyball is a genial good guy of a movie. The idea of underdogs winning through smarts, not brawn, is as enduringly appealing as the story of David and Goliath. And with underdogs as likable as Pitt and Hill who wouldn’t have a good time. I do feel that there’s could have been a more insightful movie made with this material, but there’s nothing wrong with Bennett Miller making a supremely entertaining movie with the material.