Moneyball (Columbia Pictures, PG-13)

I don’t like baseball, but I did like Moneyball.

 
 
Here are some things about Moneyball. It looks like a baseball movie, but it’s actually somewhat closer to being a movie about math. It’s a movie that celebrates underdogs (in the form of baseball players who seem unmarketable as stars but who can do at least one thing very well), and yet stars maybe the biggest movie star on the planet. It’s a big Hollywood studio release, but was made on a relatively modest budget. In other words, it’s a movie of many contradictions.
I don’t like baseball (and don’t much like math, come to think of it), but I did like Moneyball. While sports on the whole are pretty well lost on me, good sports movies are not; I can get into them just as well as anyone. Perhaps the more academic approach to it here is why it worked for me. Maybe because it has this academic approach that the producers felt the need to cast someone like Brad Pitt in the lead role: The one thing he can traditionally do well is to get people of all types to care about the movies he’s in.
Moneyball was adapted by Aaron Sorkin (fresh off of his Oscar win for The Social Network) and Stephen Zaillian (of Schindler’s List and this December’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) from the book of the same name by Michael Lewis (who also wrote the book The Blind Side, which was turned into another sports movie that I at least relatively liked). It is based on the true story of the 2002 Oakland A’s team, which was bankrolled with a fraction of the money available to, say, the Yankees, but that season went on to break the record for most consecutive wins, among other achievements. (I’ll leave the other achievements out for those of you like me who know nothing of recent sports history—my ignorance makes movies like this more suspenseful.) How they did falls mostly on the shoulders of general manager Billy Beane (Pitt), who exploits what at that point is just a theory: You don’t go after players who are good looking, or stars, or even because they are all-around good players, but because they can do one thing that your team needs (usually “get on base,” even if that entails just walking a lot of the time). Beane describes the team as being like “card counters at the blackjack table,” and this theory and the way it is put into practice make for a surprisingly cinematic movie in director Bennett Miller’s hands. It helps that he incorporates actual footage of the season, not unlike what Gus Van Sant did in Milk (though to entirely different ends).
Still, we have to go back to that cast. I can see some justification for casting Brad Pitt in the role of Billy Beane; he’s good in the role and, like I said, makes the film more accessible to people who might be wary of it due to the math angle it takes. Looking past him, though, the two other most important roles in the film are also played by recognizable faces: Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, the young baseball executive who teaches Beane the tenets of the theory that Beane puts into place, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Art Howe, the manager who thinks that Beane and Brand are ruining the team. This is enough to raise a couple more eyebrows given the theme of the film and its at least somewhat high artistic aspirations. Sure, Hoffman was an “undervalued player” about 15 years ago, but that all went out the window when he won Best Actor for his previous teaming up with Miller in 2005’s Capote. Meanwhile, Hill is fine in his role, and it is against the type he’s most known for playing so I really have no right to complain. Still, I can’t help but feel like the filmmakers are missing the point of the movie by casting such recognizable people in these roles. If the goal of the A’s in 2002 was to win, one has to assume that the goal of Moneyball is to make money. Thankfully, sometimes good movies do make money, and this one might just fall into that category. | Pete Timmermann

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