Moneyball review

Can Moneyball do for baseball what The Social Network did for social networking? Here's Ron's review of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill's new movie...

Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has a problem. He’s got to replace three star players on the baseball team he runs. Compounding the problem of finding new stars is the fact that teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on players, while Oakland has one of the lowest payrolls in its sport. When the playing field is inherently unlevel, the only way to find success is to change the game.

Enter stats nerd Peter Bland (Jonah Hill), who Beane runs into while shopping for talent in Cleveland.

Peter, an economist with an economist’s love of numbers and statistics, is able to see beyond the traditional baseball success meters of hits, runs batted in, and steals, and into a strange new world of advanced statistics, where runs aren’t magically occurring but generated by getting on base. When the Yankees are paying for home runs with millions, the As decide to put their stock in the principle of getting on base. If you can get on base, you can score runs. How you get on base doesn’t matter.

Of course, when you change the way baseball has done business for 100 years, you’re going to run into problems, like old-school manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who quite simply refuses to with the program no matter what Beane tries to do.  Can the principles of Moneyball turn the As into winners despite a loser’s budget or will baseball tradition win out via sheer obstinacy? 

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Moneyball tries very hard to be more than a sports movie. Much like The Social Network, it tries to take something with very limited appeal and attempts to broaden it by making it something else. Moneyball is a maverick and a brainiac against an entire entrenched system of lifetime baseball people, whose conventional wisdom and horse sense are about as useful as a dowsing rod when it comes to actually evaluating players (or so Moneyball would have us believe).

After spending years trapped in development hell, Moneyball ended up landing a very good crew behind the cameras, thanks to Brad Pitt’s fervent desire to see this thing make the big screen. Pitt the producer landed director Bennett Miller of Capote fame, as well as screenwriters Steven Zailian (Schindler’s List, Gangs Of New York) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network). 

The script is very well done, with the baseball references handled deftly and the interplay between Beane and his team of scouts being amusingly rendered in colorful language. Moneyball is a surprisingly funny movie, all things considered, and the interplay between Pitt and Jonah Hill is excellent.

There’s chemistry there, and while the attention is definitely on Beane and his troubles, Hill’s Peter Bland also gets to grow and change over the course of the season, going from a bumbling sort of socially-inept kid to an actual, helpful assistant GM.

The baseball players featured most prominently in the film, Scott Hatteberg and David Justice, are brought to life by actors Chris Pratt (Hatteberg) and Stephen Bishop (Justice). They have limited screen time, but Pratt and Bishop do very well with what they’re given. Pratt especially shines as Hatteberg, who transitions awkwardly into a first basemen with a kind of bumbling charm and sweetness.

As for Jonah Hill, this might be the first time where I’ve been able to look at him and not see Jonah Hill. There were so many moments in Moneyball where Jonah Hill could have done something Jonah Hill does, yet at every moment, Hill and Miller rightfully underplay things. After all, Peter Bland isn’t the sort of person who’d make big facial expressions and rant. He’s a quiet, shy sort, and Hill embodies this. This might be the role where Hill becomes a legitimate actor, even if Moneyball may not give Brad Pitt the Oscar he seems to crave.

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As for Miller, his second major film after Capote shows flashes of brilliance, but they’re smothered beneath layers of indulgence.  The boardroom scenes with the assembled scouts are great, but balanced against that are lots of wasted shots of Billy Beane working out and loads of men spitting into cups. Moneyball is a very long 133 minutes at some points.

Moneyball doesn’t seem to quite move past sports and into the world in the same way that The Social Network did, possibly because it spends so much time concentrating on the on-field fortunes of the As. It’s based on a book about sports, and all the additions to the movie that aren’t centered on sports (Beane’s relationship with his daughter, for example) don’t really add anything to the movie. You could easily chop out 30 to 45 minutes from the film, and it would probably end up better for it. There are only so many shots of Brad Pitt diving a pickup truck that you really need. 

That said, it’s still a very good sports movie told well. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, Moneyball is an entertaining ride, and the movie does a good job of turning something boring and difficult to explain into entertainment. I just wish the movie was as good as it seems to think it is.

US correspondent Ron Hogan was never really a baseball player, but he loves statistics and number-crunching. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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3 out of 5