Numbers game 

Moneyball's smart despite Brad Pitt

We don't go to sports movies that are based on real-life events for the surprise ending. We go to feel things and to be inspired. Many of you may already be familiar with Moneyball's story, but I had the benefit of remembering nothing about who had good seasons in 2001 and 2002 (the time period the film spans) or, indeed, any era of baseball ever. Who even won the World Series last year? I don't know. Of course, the movie isn't really about baseball.

Moneyball is written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (the man behind The Social Network), based on the book by Michael Lewis (The Big Short, The Blind Side) and it's directed by Bennett Miller. (He directed Capote, which is even better than you remember. Rent it today!) The Social Network worked because of its smart, dynamic characters, and because it's about something so creative and historically unprecedented: the creation of Facebook. This is what I came to Moneyball hoping for, and these are indeed the film's strengths.

click to enlarge MANNEQUIN OR MAN?
  • Mannequin or man?

The Oakland A's are trying to compete in a system where a team's success tends to correlate with how much money they spend. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the general manager looking for an edge, and he finds it by using a computer algorithm created by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) that values runs scored over individual players. They take a big chance by enacting Brand's theories, which fly in the face of a century's worth of tradition. It doesn't work at first, and then it does, and—voilà!—they've changed the game forever.

Some of my favorite scenes take place around a big table, where old, seasoned men take on the monumental task of building a winning team with no money and using tired principles. A baseball championship isn't just won on the field—it's the result of many minds working together toward a desired outcome. Watching these characters plot, prepare and argue about how best to win is one of the film's chief pleasures.

Pitt's character is the centerpiece of the story, and I guess it needs such an anchor, but somehow I wish it were another way. The pressure is on Billy Beane to win, just like it was 20 years ago when he played pro ball and failed to live up to expectations. Outside the game, there's his failed marriage and the love of his daughter to consider. Much of the film's humanity is meant to come out of these problems, but that's not where I found it. This is probably one of Pitt's best roles, but, meh. I can tell when he's about to cry but doesn't, by that same weird face he does at the end of Seven when he finds Gwyneth Paltrow's head in the box.

The real tenderness comes through in every other performance, and it doesn't get better than Hill, who plays the Yale graduate in economics with the big new ideas. Hill plays Peter with awkwardness proportional to his confidence. He is both kind and funny. This is Hill's breakthrough role, and he is the heart of the film.

Moneyball runs us through the ringer a bit. A lot of time is spent watching the new system fail. These scenes feel long, but maybe the story has to punish us a little so we can feel even better when things finally turn around. The team manager needs to be made to understand the new system. (Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Art Howe with an understated coolness. The man has never given a bad performance.) The players need to understand their roles and they need to be treated like human beings instead of the statistics they represent. Waiting for Beane to slowly come to a conclusion that seems obvious from the start is frustrating, but who knows, maybe it really happened that way.

Beane is frustrated by the losses, too, as evidenced by him throwing things a lot. Flipping a desk is startling, and then there's the ultimate sports cliché turned on its head, when he hurls a big jug of Gatorade against the lockers in anger instead of celebration—oh no he didn't! A sudden U-turn on a road very literally symbolizes the turning point in the film, although it's probably not as conspicuous as I'm making it sound.

There's a lesson here about the value of truly original thinking and the courage it takes to enact it. There is Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield and Major League levels of feel-good inspiration at play, with an added layer of realism and intelligence. Peter refers to the players as an "Island of Misfit Toys." When the team comes back from 11 straight losses with a record-breaking 20-game win streak, being made to sit through an hour of disappointment and desk flipping is so worth it.

Moneyball continues at the Carmike 10.

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