The beauty of cinema is the way it can take ordinary and mundane things and make them more exciting than they appear in real life. What’s curious about Moneyball is the way it takes a fascinating subject matter and drains it of any serious kicks or vibes for the big screen. As far as baseball stories go, this one offers a very complex and meditative reflection on the modern state of the game. It’s just too bad that the filmmakers bog down the story’s perceptions with a tiresome vibe of self-importance.
Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the General Manager of the Oakland A’s who was once a promising player but couldn’t buck his talents on the major league fields. Beane once again suffers wounding defeat after his team loses to the New York Yankees in the 2001 postseason. To make matters worse, the Yankees end up buying three of the A’s star players once they go to free agency. At the time, the A’s have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and can’t afford big name players like the Yankees can. For the 2002 season, Beane struggles to assemble a team that can actually win on a bargain budget.
Beane finds hope in the form of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics graduate with a gift for mastering baseball statistics. Brand points out that players are better to be evaluated by their on-base percentage as opposed to their position performance. For walks and singles can lead to on-base runs, runs can lead to good numbers, good numbers can lead to high rankings, and so forth. With this newfound philosophy, Beane decides to fill his roster with cheap and flawed players who at least have the ability to get on base. Not only is this strategy unorthodox, but it threatens years of traditional baseball scouting. Can Beane pull off his newfound science in such a rigorously structured institution? Will this crazy new plan actually help the A’s obtain significant wins?
Although its a story composed mainly of stats and numbers, Moneyball is endlessly compelling in the way a traditional system was uprooted and changed on outlandish new terms. Even non-baseball fans can marvel at the shrewd calculation in which this system challenged the big business mentality of its own sport. So it’s a real shame how much this film slugs along, never realizing how lively its membrane could actually be. It’s clear that the film aspires to the system-changing excitement of The Social Network (obvious from Aaron Sorkin’s re-write of this script), but it lacks the wit, energy, and sparkle of that earlier film. Both movies take detailed looks at revolutionary systems of information, but The Social Network had a wicked humor and breathless inventiveness that Moneyball crucially lacks.
Perhaps the problem lies within the direction of Bennett Miller. Miller’s previous directorial effort was Capote, which also examined the bruising emotions beneath an America-shaking story. Miller highlighted such harrowing gloominess within that material, he made a disturbing story even more unsettling. Unfortunately, he appears to bring that same downer attitude to this movie. I noticed there were an abundance of shots featuring Brad Pitt sitting alone in turmoil. Miller sees Moneyball more as a disintegration of a pure game rather than a liberating rage against the cash machine. Too bad his vision doesn’t seem as entertaining as the latter avenue would be. It doesn’t help matters that Miller trucks in doses of sentimental profundity that befalls most baseball flicks. It’s movies like this that make me realize why Bull Durham is the Great American Baseball Film: it understands that baseball is typically more quirky and ironical than it is profound.
To understand that Steven Soderbergh was the original director of Moneyball is to understand the playful inspiration his version could’ve been loaded with. Soderbergh specializes in systems of manipulation and tends to enjoy the rogues and outcasts who get off on playing with them. While being a rebel can be isolating and taxing, Soderbergh understands that it can also be electric and exhilarating. If Beane and his cohorts held the smirking joy of Ocean’s Eleven or the goofball audacity of Mark Whitacre, then Moneyball would truly be a hoot of astonishing uniqueness.
What Miller does, in fact, get out of his version is fine performances from seasoned pros. Pitt always enjoys showing cracks in seemingly golden boys, and he’s superb here at exploring Beane’s wistfulness and desperation to win. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderfully convincing as A’s Manager Art Howe, conveying a poker-faced masculine authority thats great to relish. The best performance here comes from Jonah Hill as the shy-but-brilliant statistics nerd. It’s easy to see how Hill could’ve played up his usual geeky-shtick routine to milk laughs, but he instead puts forth a thoughtful performance based on masterful nuances and restraint. A scene in which he must break the news to a player that he’s been traded is a thing of subtle beauty.
The initial story and great performances would almost be enough to recommend this film, but its hard not to imagine the funny and liberating movie lost in translation. As it is, Miller’s Moneyball holds a competent bottom line that tells a complicated story in a thankfully coherent manner. I can imagine die-hard baseball fans getting a significant fulfillment out of this. Yet if the filmmakers were able to recognize the anarchic spirit and bruising humor apparent in the material, this could’ve been one of the finest baseball movies ever made.