I hate to say it but Moneyball is right. Baseball is basically just numbers. We try to make it more than that, and I definitely have. There was a time when I would, with pride, tell anybody who would listen that baseball was my FAVORITE sport. Football was fun and all, but the strategy, the grueling long season, and the bursts of excitement were the best part of sports to me. I don’t know if baseball changed or I did (both most likely) but that is no longer the case. To be honest, as the MLB playoffs are underway as I type this, I haven’t sat down and watched a whole game. I’m much more excited to see the box score and know who won, but I’m not interested in devoting four hours of my time to actually experience the game. In this way, I’m like Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who is the focus of Moneyball. Baseball is full of tradition and intuition. Or so we thought. Beane set out to change how his team worked by taking the romanticism and gut feelings out of the game, and focusing on the numbers. It certainly doesn’t sound like an exciting plot for a movie, but Brad Pitt makes it strangely compelling.
The movie opens with the Athletics losing to the Yankees, denying them a trip to the World Series. Beane, as the GM, is of course saddened by this, but to him the real tragedy happens afterwards. Oakland, being a small market team, is unable to afford their three best players anymore, so their best guys all depart to other teams in the off-season. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane as sarcastic, cold, and more than a little pissed off at the situation he finds himself in. As his scouting team practically assualts him with how certain players on their minor league teams look, Beane announces that none of them are solving the problem. The problem is Oakland has no money to pay star players.
Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). Brand has some radical ideas about how to put together a winning baseball team, and Beane is just the man to listen to them. I won’t, and can’t, fully explain those ideas here because the whole book of the same title the film is based on is dedicated to trying explain the numbers behind Beane’s way of doing things. Suffice it to say, Beane looks less at star power and more at one simple ratio; to win games, your team scores runs and prevents the other team from doing so. The film goes a little deeper in explaining, mostly through exposition by Brand, but the result is the same. Moneyball is based on the aforementioned book, but based on is about as close as the film gets to being true to the book. The film doesn’t get so much WRONG (although it clearly takes liberties on conversations and how specific outcomes were reached) as it leaves stuff OUT. Real life spoiler alert: The Oakland Athletics started winning. They did so in large part to three star pitchers they brought up through their minor league system, yet the film never mentions this at all. In a film about the pure numbers of baseball, I find it curious they chose to only focus on the offensive side of things and have the only mention of pitching be a throw away story about one relief pitcher. Chicks dig the long ball (and Brad Pitt) I suppose.
This is Brad Pitt’s film. The only other character of note is Hill’s Brand. Even the other big name actor in this movie, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has absolutely nothing to do as Art Howe, the A’s manager. Pitt is remarkable in that even when he has scenes where he’s by himself, he does a fair amount of driving around listening to games, he remains interesting to watch. This is in part because of some effective flashback sequences to Beane’s playing days, in which he was a can’t miss prospect…..who missed. I give the film credit for never giving a solid reason why Billy Beane never amounted to anything as a MLB player. It provides the motivation for Beane to look past what a guy looks like and focus ONLY on numbers, which ties things up rather nicely. That is the most fascinating part of this character; a man who loves baseball more than anything, but tries to somehow keep himself at a distance. Beane is almost a heartbroken romantic, who refuses to get too attached to any player or team because he knows they won’t be around for long, but finds himself doing it anyway. It’s this conflict, a smaller one in the midst of the grander picture of the trying to get anything in baseball to change, that truly drives the movie.
It’s nice to see Jonah Hill doing something different from his normal ultra comedic roles. He for sure has his fair share of laughs even in this film, but he performs quite well in what is at least partly a dramatic role. I actually would have liked have seen more of the Peter Brand character, as we have almost no idea of his background, why he’s interested in baseball, or even what he might be doing in his free time. All the effort to focus on Billy Beane leaves every other character in the film one dimensional.
Moneyball is an enjoyable movie, especially for baseball fans, but some flaws do stand out. The lack of character development is one, but a plotline that involves Beane’s daughter serves no purpose other than to drum up some audience sympathy for Beane. Again, in a film that’s trying to dispel the romanticism from its subject matter, trying to muster some up for a cliché “cute little girl” character seems disingenuous. The films biggest triumph is that I believe even audiences who have no interest in baseball will be entertained. This isn’t a sports movie, it’s a movie about a man whose trying to change the system which he believes no longer works, and that’s a universal story. It’s a strong performance by Pitt and I don’t think the movie would have worked without him. Kudos to Moneyball for making the business side of baseball worth watching. Plus, it’s about 50 percent shorter than a real baseball game these days.