If Brad Pitt were going to play a baseball executive, I wish it had been for my hometeam PITTsburgh Pirates, but alas he plays the real-life Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Pitt’s performance is worth the cost of admission and it’s a must-see for baseball fans. Here goes:
Moneyball (Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman) – Baseball has been romanticized in scores of film. It is a genre rich in tradition that spans comedies (Major League, Kill The Ump), dramas (The Natural, Eight Men Out), and schmaltz (Pride of the Yankees). Baseball is the so-called national pastime except that it has been surpassed by football. For those of us weaned on baseball, there will always be a special place in our heart for a game we all know well and that conjures up memories of childhood dreams as the next Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. For me, it was Dick Groat (go ahead, look it up). Now for those of you who don’t recognize any of these names, I promise to get to the movie review now.
Moneyball is based on the book of the same name written by Billy Beane, the general manager of the hapless Oakland Athletics. The A’s were actually a great franchise for a while. As we join the film, the A’s are losing a playoff game that knocks them out of the hunt for an American League championship and a World Series berth. Beane (Brad Pitt) calls his front-office team together and presides over a standard recitation of scouting reports on the players who might be used to replace the three stars who are leaving the A’s in free agency. His epiphany comes when he realizes that his team is about to slip into total obscurity. His owner can’t afford to give him the millions of dollars it will take to compete with the likes of the big-market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. As he hits the road to meet with other general managers to try to forge trades to replace his fleeing stars, he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young staffer who believes that baseball is stuck in an old paradigm that is fundamentally flawed in evaluating talent. The kid has developed a mathematical way to evaluate players that isn’t based on human scouting reports and traditional statistics like batting average and wins & losses. Beane is all ears.
He goes, in his words, “all in,” adopts the kids’ methods and proceeds to re-mold his team to one that is predicated on on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and other metrics that have never been viewed as critical. The scouts become secondary and the computer primary.
Billy is a complicated character, having been a no-lose prospect who never made it, becoming a scout and working his way up at a very young age to GM. But he doesn’t watch the games because he wants to remain aloof and not get too close to players he may one day have to fire. He lives the game, seeking the success he never got as a player. Divorced (his ex is played by Robin Wright, who is wasted once again as somebody’s mom) and just loves his daughter, who he doesn’t see enough of.
For those among you who are baseball fans, you know the rest of the story. For those of you who don’t, I won’t spoil it for you. Is this another Rocky (where the hero loses the fight but finds himself) or The Karate Kid (who wins the match and finds his inner self) or something else?
Brad Pitt’s performance is already gaining Oscar buzz and it deserves to. Pitt plays it perfectly (excuse the alliteration) and is in practically every single scene of the movie. Hill, who usually just plays a buffoon (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The 40-Year Old Virgin), plays this one very straight with marginal success.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, always exceptional, plays manager Art Howe, who doesn’t buy any of this new-age baseball that bases a player’s worth on stats and value-per-dollar spent. It is an odd role for Hoffman, and he is at the periphery of the story.
I have no problems with the film; it’s excellent by baseball movie standards with lots of on-field action and behind-the-scenes insights into the front-office world. I have more of a problem with Billy Beane’s self-aggrandizing story. The best example of the success of “moneyball” is the Boston Red Sox, not the Oakland A’s. The inventor of the “system” is really Brand (who is really a compilation character, not a single person). Beane is the one who brought it to the forefront, which makes him one kind of pioneer.
But it all makes for a good and deep drama and a fine, entertaining film with a charismatic star.