Moneyball's being touted as one of the first serious Oscar contenders of 2011, but while the baseball film is quite good, it's not great. It doesn't hit a home run, falling just short of knocking one out of the ballpark. Moneyball's more like a nice, solid double. You applaud it, but it won't have you rising to your feet and cheering.
The film's journey to the screen was a rocky one, with the studio halting things right before filming was set to begin. Moneyball lost its director, Steven Soderbergh, but kept its star throughout the turbulent patches, eventually bringing on board Bennett Miller (director of Capote) to guide the project through to fruition. And based on the final finished film, Miller was the right choice to step in and take over. He's directed Moneyball in a straight-forward style, without any bells and whistles and gimmicky tricks. Miller lets the story and the sport of baseball do all the work, with the screenplay focusing on the intricacies of sabermetrics and how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane used on-base percentages and other telling stats to build a winning ball club from the ashes up after major market teams had gutted his line-up.
Brad Pitt delivers a fine performance (not necessarily Oscar-worthy, but terrific) as Billy Beane, a divorced dad employed by a professional baseball club with one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball. After a winning season, the Yankees, Red Sox, and St. Louis pick off his best players. Beane is forced into resorting to a radical, thinking outside the box plan in which the opinions of his team's scouts are discounted in favor of an in-depth analysis of a player's on-base statistics. Beane doesn't care about a player's looks, their off-the-field antics, age, or batting average. Implementing a system developed by Paul Brand (played by Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate who majored in economics, Beane assembles a group of cast-offs and under-rated players who, based on statistics, should be capable of pulling off a winning season.
Despite attempts to sabotage his newly created team and system by manager Art Howe (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), Beane and Brand's system changes the accepted face of low-market major league baseball. Once the A's players commit to completely buying into Beane's non-traditional advice of taking pitches and being patient at the plate, they accomplish what no one inside the sport ever anticipated this ragtag group of underdogs would be capable of doing.
The Bottom Line
Working against the film is the fact that you have to love the sport of baseball to enjoy the movie. Unlike other inspirational sports stories (Hoosiers, The Blind Side, Miracle, The Natural), Moneyball is totally dependent on its audience's love for America's national pastime. Otherwise, sitting through a film about the financial aspects of building a major league team is likely to be as riveting as watching grass grow.
But for those who do enjoy the sport, Moneyball pays off on its promises. We are privy to the inner workings of drafting players and the financial wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the scenes in a way that hasn't been revealed before. Screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin take liberties with the true story, including changing Beane's real assistant general manager Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate, to a Yale graduate in the film version [that change was necessary as DePodesta did not give permission for his name to be used in the movie]. But they've smartly focused the drama on the oddball relationship between Beane and Brand.
Pitt is in top form, delivering one of his best performances. Pitt plays the divorced dad trying to keep a foothold in his daughter's life just right, without too much sentimentality, bringing the relationship across as honestly as possible. As the unconventional general manager, Pitt's Beane is a sympathetic figure, a man in a tough situation who relies on his charm, confidence, and baseball sense to ultimately bend others to his plans, yet he's uncomfortable around players themselves which is a really interesting dynamic to watch. As his right-hand man and the brains behind the A's new approach to signing players, Jonah Hill displays an incredible sense of comic timing in a much more restrained fashion than his normal broad comedic roles. Hill's Brand starts off as a deer in the headlights, a computer geek ready to flee at any moment who very subtly and very gradually blossoms under Beane's tutelage. Together, Pitt and Hill make for a terrific, quirky odd couple that works well on screen.
Moneyball's based on a true story so there's no legitimate way to cheat on the actual outcome, which means the ending isn't what's expected of an inspirational sports film. Yet despite the fact history didn't provide the perfect ending for the movie, director Miller and the screenwriters have managed to leave the audience feeling good about the ultimate outcome of Beane's unconventional maneuverings. Moneyball isn't your typical cliché-ridden sports story, but instead is a unique Cinderella tale that manages to make the analysis of stats a fascinating subject matter for a feature film.
Moneyball was directed by Bennett Miller and is rated PG-13 for some strong language.
Theatrical Release: September 23, 2011