"Moneyball" is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill sports movie. There are no training montages scored to either an upbeat pop song or an inspirational instrumental suite. There are no rallying climactic pep talks given by the coach to his players. There are no late-in-the-season debilitating injuries that put the fate of the team into jeopardy. There are no romantic subplots. There are no slow claps from the cheering stands. In fact, there is no "big game" (well, there is, but it is completely skipped over and the results are speedily revealed after the fact). It takes a brave studio picture to recognize that there's sometimes more to the sports genre than the common trifles and clichés audiences have been predisposed to expect these days. If all a baseball fanatic is looking for is some on-the-field action, they would be wise to look elsewhere. Where "Moneyball" spends the vast bulk of its time is behind-the-scenes with characters whose job it is to crunch numbers and statistically figure out who is valuable, who is disposable, and what the most beneficial method of attack is in improving a team's odds for winning. It may sound dry, but it's actually a great deal more enthralling and informative than the premise suggests. Director Bennett Miller (2005's "Capote
") and writers Steven Zaillian (2007's "American Gangster
") and Aaron Sorkin (2010's "The Social Network
") have a way not only with words and imagery, but also with the thematic inferences within these sights and sounds. "Moneyball" is complex in its torn viewpoints, alternately treating baseball with the reverence of someone who loves the game and the doubting mind of someone who doesn't.
When Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) was just out of high school, he had to make a life-defining choice: go to Stanford or play pro-ball. The decision was an easy one to make, but after several years of struggling and not really improving his game, he opted out of the limelight and into the role of General Manager for the Oakland Athletics. Following another failed season and a ridiculously low payroll to contend with ($38-million vs. the New York Yankees' $100-million-plus), Billy decides the A's are in desperate need for a change. Enlisting the help of 25-year-old Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a prodigal player analyst, Billy begins the complicated process of rebuilding the team, trading their overpaid so-called hotshots who haven't been delivering what they'd promised in exchange for lower-paid, undervalued athletes who can statistically deliver more bang for their buck. Team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) thinks he's crazy, but goes along with it as the new season gets underway. For Billy, it's make-or-break time; if the team doesn't at least show significant improvement, it could mean the end of his reputation and career.
Adapted from the non-fiction book "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game" by Michael Lewis, "Moneyball" is a deftly written drama that takes an insider's look at the tricky, uncompromising politics of sports management. An exposé of sorts, the film mostly remains focused on the business dealings at hand while also working as a narrowed-in profile of Billy Beane. Having never quite reached the heights he aspired to as a professional baseball player, Billy wants to make up for it from a different side of the sports profession. How he goes about gathering up his new players is unorthodox, to be sure, but also based in stats and probabilities that few, if any, of their competitors bother to take into account. With a since-remarried ex-wife in Sharon (Robin Wright) whom he appears to still have a civil relationship with, Billy shares custody of their beloved 12-year-old daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). It's a situation that appears to work for them, the viewer getting the sense that his marriage fell apart not because of some big tawdry affair or falling-out, but simply because his commitment to his job and child left little time or room for a wife.
As the headstrong but far from unflappable Billy Beane, Brad Pitt (2009's "Inglourious Basterds
") appears off and on to be channeling Kyle Chandler's Coach Eric Taylor from television's "Friday Night Lights," but better to take from the best that like-minded film and TV have to offer than the weak or misguided. Pitt is immensely likable even when his temper is shortdirector Bennett Miller journeys to the same well once too often as Billy, in multiple scenes, takes out his frustrations by throwing everything from a table to a chair to an ice coolerand there's a suggested added complexity to him when it appears as if he has little authentic interest in baseball outside of what his job requires. He works out in the locker room gym in lieu of watching the games being played and, late in the film, asks about sports as a whole, "What's the point?" For all of the stress that goes into what he does and for all of the commentators who think they know him and his motives when they don't, is there really much meaning behind the line of work he's in? Billy realizes he's not curing a disease or changing the world, and yet his values are strong enough that he would also never betray the honesty of baseball itself.
This is Pitt's show all the way, the rest of the cast serving their purpose but not nearly as deeply explored. Jonah Hill (2010's "Cyrus
") is proving again and again that he has far more layers as an actor than that of a wisecracking funnyman, and he plays Peter Brand as wet behind the ears but undeniably intelligent, unsure of himself when he must speak up but consistently reliable. What Hill doesn't get is a character with much background or substance; next to nothing is learned about him outside of what is connected to his job. Philip Seyour Hoffman (2008's "Doubt
"), looking surprisingly different with a shaved head, has fun as team manager Art Howe, defiant and continually flustered when Billy supersedes his opinion. Chris Pratt (2011's "Take Me Home Tonight
") is quietly moving as veteran player Scott Hatteberg, given a second chance when he's drafted to the A's despite a bad elbow, and Robin Wright (2011's "The Conspirator
") shows up for a single scene as Billy's supportive ex-wife Sharon. Making the most lasting impression, however, is 13-year-old Kerris Dorsey (2005's "Just Like Heaven
"), an unaffected, endearing scene-stealer as Billy's daughter Casey. When she sings Lenka's 2008 song "The Show" to her dad while strumming the guitar she's picked up at a music store, it ceases to matter that it's being so blatantly anachronistically used (the movie's set in 2001-2002). It's a special moment of unadulterated perfection just the same, the response on Billy's face all that needs to be said about the love he has for his child.
Following an all but unheard-of twenty-win sweep, it all comes down to the elimination game. Credit "Moneyball" for not milking suspense from whether the A's take the game, but on the potential consequences of a loss to Billy's reputation. In a world where the general public and sports press tend to suffer from short-term memory, it doesn't matter if Billy has improved the team overall if the last game has a disappointing end; that's what they'll concentrate on. Billy is prepared for whatever might happen, and the picture arrives at just the right tough but ingratiating conclusion, made all the more satisfying because it really happened. "Moneyball" might be overpraised in certain circles because of just how confidently it tells its story. Still, character shades are lacking for pivotal side characters that might have gifted the narrative a fuller, more emotion-driven scope, and there's also little attention paid to the necessary training that attributes to the seasonal upswing. What does work is its peppy smartness, its gritty, silver-toned, appealingly almost dreamlike atmosphere courtesy of top-notch cinematographer Wally Pfister (2010's "Inception
"), and, most distinctly, its sympathetic attention to Billy Beane's flawed yet valiant soul. By letting it go and just enjoying the show, he better understands what he's doing and where he's going. The only question left is, does his daughter grow up to become Lenka?