You don’t have to know about VORP — or WHIP, or OPS — to enjoy “Moneyball,” the story of how a bunch of stat geeks changed the way baseball teams assess and acquire players.
Sure, it helps if you’re a fan of the sport and if you’ve read Michael Lewis’ breezy and engaging best-seller “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” Sabermetrics — the process of applying statistical formulas, rather than on-field appearance and general makeup, to determine a player’s worth — wouldn’t seem like an inherently cinematic topic. But Lewis made lesser-known guys like Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford leap off the page. And the cajoling patter from Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who pioneered this experimental philosophy, would seem tailor-made for screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who co-wrote the script along with fellow veteran scribe Steven Zaillian.
Still, what’s most pleasing about the film doesn’t really have to do with baseball.
As Beane, Brad Pitt is at his charismatic best — a little weary, a little weathered, but that complexity only makes him more appealing. He’s persistent and persuasive as he tries to change the mindset of the baseball lifers who surround him. We see him rage in his infamously volatile fashion when things go wrong, but we also see him make himself vulnerable: He’s embracing this approach as a result of his own failure.
Tall, good-looking and naturally athletic — a five-tool guy, as they say — Beane was a highly-touted high school prospect who turned down a scholarship to Stanford to play for the New York Mets. But his professional career was brief, and he never lived up to the hype. This inspired him to value players for more pragmatic reasons than the traditional methods old-school scouts use. The most important thing, he reasoned, is getting on base. And some of the players who get on base most often happen to be undervalued, perhaps older or a little banged-up, and they come at bargain prices — which is crucial when you’ve got a fraction of the payroll of big-market teams.
As he ventures into this brave new world at the start of the 2002 season, having lost in agonizing fashion to the New York Yankees in the 2001 post-season, his trusty sidekick is Peter Brand, a 25-year-old Yale economics graduate and follower of sabermetrics guru Bill James. (The character is an amalgamation of several young, up-and-coming baseball executives who subscribed to this belief). Jonah Hill is at his best here, too, as Brand: the perfect foil for a force of nature like Beane. Halting and almost humorless, Hill ultimately finds the quiet confidence in this character, and he and Pitt bounce off each other beautifully. The scenes in which they banter represent the best “Moneyball” has to offer.
Yes, they’re talking about baseball, but the intelligence of their interactions and the bond they forge transcend sport. And watching them upend a bastion of American culture can be thrilling.
Similarly, though, the things that are wrong with the movie have nothing to do with baseball, either. Insiders and hardcore fans will probably find reasons to nitpick, as is their wont; if there’s a group of people more obsessed with details and arcania than movie nerds, it’s baseball nerds. But more fundamentally, there’s a problem with the pacing in director Bennett Miller’s film.
Miller’s feature debut was “Capote,” which earned Philip Seymour Hoffman a best-actor Oscar (and Hoffman shows up here in a barely developed role as A’s manager Art Howe, who bucks Beane at every opportunity). As rich a character study as “Capote” was, it also offered suspense as it traced the author’s rise and fall. “Moneyball” never feels like it’s building toward anything, even if you know how the A’s season unfolded that year. It plays out in starts and stops, and then all of a sudden, we’re in the midst of the team’s historic 20-game win streak.
Perhaps this is a product of the script’s development in pieces, with Zaillian starting it, Steven Soderbergh (who initially was set to direct) revising it and Sorkin submitting the final draft. Whatever the cause, the end result often feels disjointed.
A subplot involving Beane’s daughter, which wasn’t part of the book, also seems like a wedged-in device to humanize him. And ultimately it seems odd to romanticize this figure who sought to strip the sport of its long-held romanticism.
But like the A’s themselves at this time, “Moneyball” has enough unlikely pieces that do work — and it generates enough underdog goodwill — to make you want to stick around for the final out.