Chillin' out till it needs to be funded
Every year, I get wary of the inevitable film set in a sporting arena where an underdog player or team must triumph against adversity to become unlikely heroes. As accomplished or heartwarming as many of these films can be, they never seem to be able to break free of the conventions that we’ve all seen a hundred times. While I can’t say that “Moneyball” isn’t inspired by the genre, I will say that it looks at the phenomenon from a decidedly different angle. Based on Michael Lewis’s non-fiction account of the same name, this is actually an intriguing story ruled by the business of baseball as opposed to the emotions the game elicits. As such, it seems like something entirely new. Director Bennett Miller (Oscar nominee for Capote), along with heavyweight screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian, has created one of the brainiest and least sentimental baseball films you’re likely to see. “Moneyball” tells the true story of how the Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane rebuilt the team for the 2002 season with enormous financial constraints using computer analysis and statistics. While admittedly, this might not sound like a particularly sexy plot–it was a pivotal moment in sporting history well worth documenting. And despite knowing the outcome, the film is never less than fascinating.
“Moneyball” refers to the inherent unfairness in the sport as teams with deep pockets can rule the game by outspending their smaller competitors when selecting the top tier players. When Oakland lost its powerhouse line-up, the team was left scrambling for replacements. Eschewing traditional recruitment methods, Beane (Brad Pitt) placed his trust in a new assistant (Jonah Hill) that had a new way of looking at statistics to determine the game’s most undervalued players. Against all advice, he assembled a team of misfits that no one thought could succeed–including his own manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who constantly challenged and opposed Beane. What happens at the start of the season only cements the team as a league (and national) laughingstock and has the country thirsting for Beane’s sacrificial blood. But against all odds, things start to gel and history is made.
Pitt plays Beane with a world-weary grace. It may, in fact, be his most grounded performance to date. Aloof at first, we see how he thaws to his own superstitions to become an invaluable part of the club. Through flashbacks and interludes with his daughter, we see different sides of a man who has dedicated his life to the sport. Jonah Hill plays it straight as the assistant who is instrumental to the team’s new direction. Hill is surprisingly good, deadpan even, and he and Pitt develop a chemistry that is as unlikely as it is effective. Hoffman has a small, but vital, role and is spot-on. The actors that comprise the team all turn in solid work as well, but fundamentally this is Pitt’s picture from start to finish. And understatement is the name of the game. A smart screenplay, an interesting topic, effective performances–it’s all handled with a refreshing minimum of schmaltz (a key element in many sport’s films). By tackling the back office side of baseball, “Moneyball” sets itself apart as a true original. A film that doesn’t just love the game, but really understands it (foibles and all). A rarity and a surprisingly adult entertainment, about 4 1/2 stars.