Moneyball (United States, 2011)

September 22, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Moneyball Poster

Moneyball illustrates what can happen when a non-fiction book that's more about ideas and processes is translated into a feature film. There's a lot of fascinating information in Moneyball (although, to be fair, it's questionable how much interest this will hold for someone who is not a baseball fan), but the drama is fitful and at times inert. Attempts to flesh out the history and personality of the central character, Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), lead us into standard-order bio-pic territory. It's left to secondary characters like Assistant GM Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and A's manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to inject color and dimension. Moneyball comes to life when elaborating on Beane's unique system of player selection, and the on-field baseball action is at times electrifying, but it trends toward the generic when tailing him away from the stadium.

The difficulty faced by the filmmakers is that Moneyball (the book) is the template for a documentary, not a feature. In order to rework the essence of the written version into a film, much of what makes the book worth reading is eliminated. We get bits and pieces of the "Moneyball" philosophy, but it is distilled into snippets and sound bytes. It's a little like the beginning of Casino, in which the audience is pelted with fascinating behind-the-scenes information delivered in a rat-a-tat-tat fashion. Here, as in the book, Beane is the central figure, but the movie is more interested in him as a character than as a sabermetrician. In flashbacks, we see his failure as a one-time highly regarded prospect. In the main time frame, which chronicles the 2002 season, we follow his "adoption" of Yale Graduate Peter Brand (a fictionalized Paul DePodesta), and we are presented with token snapshots of his relationship with his 12-year old daughter (Kathryn Morris) and ex-wife (Robin Wright).

The focus of Moneyball is how Beane used unconventional, statistic-oriented methods to identify undervalued players to populate a roster and fit within a limited payroll. Beane's embrace of sabermetrics caused a shift in how front offices around the league evaluated players, but there are critics of Beane's overreliance upon it. Oakland has never won (or even participated in) a World Series since Beane took over as GM, so it's fair to argue that while the "Moneyball" philosophy is a good approach to the regular 162-game season, it's not necessarily a recipe for success in the postseason. The book debates these points in detail. The movie glosses over them.

Director Bennett Miller came to the project late, after Steven Soderbergh bowed out due to creative differences. Soderbergh's intended approach, to mix feature film and documentary elements, was scrapped in favor of a more traditional narrative structure. The screenplay, originally by Steven Zaillian and re-worked by Aaron Sorkin, falls short of what Sorkin achieved with The Social Network, and lacks the moments of "punch" that have defined many of his previous scripts. It's possible to see the director and writers struggling to develop a dramatic arc where one only marginally exists. "Moneyball" is a philosophy and, without a rigorous explanation of baseball stats, it's difficult to explore in detail. A major element of the book - examining the 2002 amateur draft - is left out of the movie completely. Ironically, in attempting to make Moneyball accessible to those with no affinity for baseball, the filmmakers have created a misfit production that relies on the box office appeal of star Brad Pitt.

Pitt is effective and charismatic as Beane, the fiery one time phenom who puts his job on the line by embracing a method of team-building that is derided by baseball lifers. The actor breathes life into the most difficult kind of on-screen personality: an "ordinary guy." There are no "Oscar bait" tactics here - Beane is not handicapped, he's not an idiot savant, he was not abused as a child, he does not age backward, he does not dine on human flesh, and he's not Keiser Sose. He's basically the guy next door, albeit one with control over a Major League baseball team. If one wants to consider Pitt's 2012 Oscar chances, he's being mentioned equally as a Best Actor nominee for Moneyball and a Best Supporting Actor choice for Tree of Life. Neither part is showy, but they illustrate something that larger-than-life roles often do not: his breadth as a performer. Mention should also be made of Jonah Hill, who steps out of his safety zone and away from his stereotyped image to take a stab at a serious role. Philip Seymour Hoffman (who has a close relationship with director Miller) and Robin Wright Penn are famous faces without a lot to do, although Hoffman makes the real-life Howe come across as dour and intractable, although not unsympathetic.

For the baseball fan in particular, stretches of Moneyball are more than engaging - seeing how Beane constructed the 2002 out of the ashes of the 2001 edition, which was ravaged by free agent departures; watching losing baseball becoming the winning variety; and re-living "the streak" - a 20-game odyssey that made "Moneyball" a common word in baseball circles. However, the A's five-game loss to the Twins in the 2002 ALDS is handled perfunctorily, and Moneyball meanders toward the end trying to find the right stopping point. Non-baseball lovers may enjoy the proceedings but are likely to be less impressed than their sports-savvy counterparts. It will be interesting to see how much of the early Academy Awards word-of-mouth is transformed into late-innings buzz and, ultimately, into Oscar gold.

Moneyball (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 2011-09-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1