Odd couple pitch a perfect game
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Sep 23, 2011
Like a cold beer under a bluebird sky; like a flawless line drive on a warm summer's day; like a long, languorous seventh-inning stretch - "Moneyball" satisfies.
A sports-centric come-from-behind drama that harbors profound truths under its self-effacing grin of an exterior, "Moneyball" is a movie of such loping, unforced ease and solid entertainment value that it's easy to take its gifts for granted.
After all, who couldn't make a terrific film out of a book by master narrative journalist Michael Lewis, adapted by gold-standard screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin? Who couldn't go wrong with a protagonist played by go-to golden boy Brad Pitt and a nerdy comic foil played by Jonah Hill? What kind of idiot could blow one of American sports' great come-from-behind moral victories - set within the dreamy fields of baseball, so redolent of all-American values and an idealized bucolic past?
The answer, of course, is a filmmaker who would dare to fatten such good bones with unnecessary melodrama or arty flourishes. Luckily, "Moneyball" - which was briefly under the directorial hand of Steven Soderbergh - landed with another consummate pro: Bennett Miller, who proved so adroit in bringing Truman Capote's story to the screen in 2005's "Capote."
Here, Miller barely puts a foot wrong in bringing to life the tale of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who in 2002 - competing against teams with three times his payroll - sought to rebuild the slumping A's and revolutionize baseball recruiting using "Sabermetrics," a system by which players are chosen based on who gets on base most often.
That approach sounds so simple as to be self-evident. But in "Moneyball," such logic runs afoul of Beane's old-school scouts, who are played in the movie by a colorfully grizzled collection of character actors and some real-life baseball veterans. Their banter, in which they refer to players' jaw lines and girlfriends while they decide whom to hire, lends "Moneyball" a thoroughly enjoyable through-line of tough, vernacular wit. What's more, that plain-spoken charm couches a far deeper conceptual point: that objective truth not only exists but matters, even at a time when it's continually being trumped by superstition, "feelings" and irrational belief.
But seeing that subtext is purely optional in a film that centers first and foremost on a gaggle of appealingly flawed protagonists, chief among them the beer-guzzling, Twinkie-gobbling Beane himself.
Miller has done a superb job of underplaying Pitt's native magnetism, which nonetheless peeks out enough to dazzle Yale-educated computer whiz Peter Brand (Hill, playing a character based on the real-life Paul DePodesta).
When Beane summarily hires Brand away from the Cleveland Indians, the sequence plays like a teasing, tantalizing seduction; in time, the two settle into a joshing, giddily off-kilter dynamic, with Brand gazing with shy wonderment as Beane populates his "island of misfit toys." (Philip Seymour Hoffman, his head shaved and in full harumph mode, is perfectly cast as A's field manager Art Howe, who isn't buying any of it.)
As for that ragtag team, Miller has assembled them mostly from major- and minor-league players, who infuse their characters with a combination of verisimilitude and unaffected charisma. Brand and Beane bring on a pitcher who throws funny (Chad Bradford, played by Casey Bond), an injured catcher (Scott Hatteberg, played by Chris Pratt) and David Justice (Stephen Bishop), the superannuated former All-Star who earns the nickname "Old Man Justice."
The secret of "Moneyball" isn't just that it makes viewers root for Beane and Brand - a classic cinematic odd couple - but for their motley crew of castoffs, whose perpetually dumbstruck expressions suggest quiet shock that anyone would notice their flawed but genuine potential. (They take the news that they've been traded or sent down like obedient hound dogs being called off a hunt.)
Like last year's "The Social Network," also written by Sorkin, "Moneyball" infuses improbable emotion into what is essentially a number-crunching, analytical endeavor; to paraphrase Sorkin himself, "Moneyball" is no more about statistics and algorithms than "The Social Network" was about coding.
In this case, rationalizing the game actually helped to humanize it, opening it up to players whose quirks had made them easy to dismiss. Beane can relate: Not only was he a would-be star who didn't live up to his potential, but he now seeks to provide for his young daughter (the beguiling Kerris Dorsey) while his ex-wife and her new husband give her a hushed life of privilege in Malibu.
As a cry of the heart for the losers, left-behinds and let-go who still have something to offer, "Moneyball" plays like a particularly heart-rending parable of these economic times. And with baseball season ready to wrap up, it gives fans some terrific games to watch, a miracle of a winning streak to cheer (at least vicariously) and a rumpled, humane hero to root for. It's difficult to review "Moneyball" without using the term "home run." So let's just say that it rounds all the bases with grace, modesty and a surfeit of heart.
Contains some strong profanity.