By Adam Nayman and Eric Hynes
â€śItâ€™s hard not to be romantic about baseball.â€ť Thatâ€™s the main refrain of Moneyball, and donâ€™t director Bennett Miller and writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin know it. This adaptation of Michael Lewisâ€™s 2003 book about baseballâ€™s statistical revolution makes a point of eschewing sports-flick clichĂ©s, but really, it's only skillfully disguising them. We still get a troupe of loveable losers beating the odds, clubhouse hijinks, a big midseason turnaround (complete with Major Leagueâ€“style victory montage), and a climactic game filled with close-ups and slow-motion heroics. The fact that itâ€™s all nicely scare-quoted doesnâ€™t mean that the filmmakers arenâ€™t leaning on this stuff for all itâ€™s worth.
The skill is there, though, largely consolidated in Brad Pittâ€™s very poised and ultimately irresistible performance as Oakland Aâ€™s general manager Billy Beane, a failed college baseball star whose front-office career is framed as an attempt at poeticality repudiating past failures. The flashbacks to Beaneâ€™s salad days arenâ€™t particularly well doneâ€”and Reed Thompson, who plays the man as young slugger, doesnâ€™t match up well with Pittâ€”but the dramatic architecture is sound: deflated by his on-diamond failures, Beane seeks a way of doing business that will simultaneously bring him glory while taking revenge on a system that overrated his own abilities. He finds it in sabermetricsâ€”a wholly empiricist mode of analysis that looks past home runs and RBIs to determine which players get on base the most.
The scenes of Beaneâ€™s initial conversion to the church of advanced statistics, after being convinced by awkward number cruncher Peter Brand (Jonah Hill)â€”a stand-in for real-life Aâ€™s assistant-GM Paul DePodestaâ€”are the most entertaining in the film, partly because they show us something most sports films donâ€™t (the pitiless calculations of team-building) and partly because the actors are having fun. I canâ€™t take Hill in his noxious jester mode, but heâ€™s alert and funnily fervent here. Iâ€™d also like to single out Chris Pratt, so good on Parks and Recreation, as catcher-turned-reluctant first-baseman Scott Hatteberg. In a small role, he etches a memorable and fairly novel character type: the spooked jock. â€”AN
Having closely followed the baseball season chronicled in Moneyball, I got a kick out of seeing demiheroes-of-very-recent-yesteryear like Hatteberg, Jeremy Giambi, and David Justice (Stephen Bishop approximates the former sluggerâ€™s sweet swing quite nicely) depicted in a Hollywood prestige picture. Itâ€™s even more up my alley than the moveable feast of famous authors in Woody Allenâ€™s Midnight in Paris. (Hey look, itâ€™s â€śEveryday Eddieâ€ť Guardado! Is that a SAG actor playing journeyman Jason Grimsley?) Yet though I liked Pratt just fine, Adam, the characterization was indicative of what troubled me most about the film: itâ€™s all shorthand, all primary coloring. The script calls for a spooked jock, to borrow your wonderful phrase, so as Hatteberg, a 32-year-old veteran at the time, Pratt has to project the self-confidence of a bowl of Jell-O. Manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) canâ€™t just be an old-school skipper who clashes with Billy Beaneâ€™s statistics-based philosophyâ€”he has to be a stubborn dumbfuck that we mock. The script calls for one nuanced character (Pittâ€™s) and one appealing sidekick with a mini-arc (Hillâ€™s)â€”the rest are around to simply make these dudes look good. This is some classic Syd Field streamlining, and smacks of insecurity with heady source material (itâ€™s about math!).
As far as big studio dramas are concerned, Moneyball functions wellâ€”itâ€™s far too long but goes down easy, is well acted and stylishly shot. But itâ€™s also a missed opportunity. Sorkinâ€™s involvement only calls to mind how successfully a seemingly uncinematic story (the origins of Facebook) was adapted into a work of both art and entertainment last year, and suggests that Awakenings screenwriter Steven Zaillian is the real architect here. Itâ€™s not about pleasing baseball fans like me (though, câ€™mon: the film goes so far to avoid complicating its Bad News Bearsâ€“esque narrative that in recounting the 2002 Oakland Athletics season it doesnâ€™t even mention MVP Miguel Tejada or Cy Young Awarded Barry Zito?). Itâ€™s about trusting that the audience can keep up when youâ€™ve made the effort to bring them along. The filmâ€™s best scene is its most Sorkinianâ€”a rapid-fire clubhouse-cleaning in which Pitt and Hill make a bunch of phone calls, read statistics from a laptop, and make trades to improve the team. Good dialogue, a strong volley between engaged performers, and cross-cutting: this, as much as anything elseâ€”and certainly more than slow-mo pantomiming on an underlit baseball diamondâ€”is cinema. Here the film rises from Jerry Maguire to David Mamet territory, and suggests how thrilling (rather than merely solid) Moneyball could have been if it werenâ€™t so watered, slowed, and dumbed down. â€”EH