Okay. Let’s get this right at the beginning. I liked Moneyball. I really liked it. I thought it was a really good movie. I enjoyed watching it. This is not a negative review of Moneyball. If I had to give this movie a grade, it would be an A-. That said, I know what I am about to say is not the popular opinion. I know you will disagree with me and I know why you will disagree with me. But hear me out.
Moneyball could have been great. Could have been, and wasn’t. And I resent that a little.
Based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, Moneyball follows the 2002 Oakland A’s season, focusing on general manager Billy Beane’s (Brad Pitt) controversial decision to implement Bill James’ “sabermetrics” as his chief scouting tool. I’m a huge baseball fan, but know this: You don’t have to be a fan to enjoy Moneyball. You don’t have to like math. Moneyball is an engaging, entertaining film whether you know anything about sports or not. If you are a fan, it’s fun to watch the scenes where Beane and his team discuss various players, but those scenes are still fun even if you don’t get why losing Jason Giambi, Jeremy Isringhausen and Johnny Damon was a big deal. This is part and parcel with what irks me about Moneyball, but let’s focus on the positive first.
First and foremost, Pitt is terrific. He’s still ridiculously good looking, but now he’s a bit careworn. There are lines and bags and some stuff is losing the fight to gravity and there’s salt in his scruff, but Pitt is still a fine looking man. He’s a pleasure to look at in Moneyball. But more importantly, he’s fun to look at, too. Beane is a pretty straightforward character. He has a high-pressure job. A lot of people rely on him. Once before in his life he had a high-pressure job with people relying on him, and he failed (his major league career was a bust), and now there’s palpable panic whenever it looks like things won’t go his way. He spends a lot of time telling people he’s okay, but he stress-eats constantly. Pitt plays the panic and the stress well, and then, when the moment matters, he infuses a shot of steely nerves into the situation. It’s a very, very convincing performance. And yes, Oscar worthy.
But the real revelation is not that Pitt can act (we’ve known this for a while now), it’s that Jonah Hill, the funny fat guy from those Judd Apatow movies, can do straight and serious, too. He’s effective and surprising in this role and will likely bag more serious work because of it. Hill gets some funny lines but his character is not there to be funny. Hill plays Peter Brand (a composite of Beane’s real-life assistants including Paul DePodesta and JP Ricciardi, now with the Mets). Brand is a Yale grad, an economics man, and he lands on Beane’s radar when one whispered word from Brand scotches a trade deal Beane wants to make with the Cleveland Indians. Instead of getting a player, Beane “trades” for Brand and he arrives in Oakland as Beane’s new right-hand man and assistant GM. Together, Beane and Brand implement a sabermetrics system to scout their new team after being gutted at the end of the 2001 season. This, naturally, pisses off the scouts who use gut feelings and the attractiveness of one’s girlfriend to assess players. This is the thinking that got Beane to pass up a Stanford scholarship and sign with the Mets out of high school.
Moneyball, under the direction of Bennett Miller (Capote), is a crisp, taut movie. Tension builds steadily in rounds. First it’s tension with the team owner over money—they don’t have enough—and then it’s tension with the scouts to build a new team given that lack of money. Then everyone gets tense about the new system of scouting, then the field manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is good as always but doesn’t have a ton to do) squares off with Beane by not playing the guys Beane wants him to play. This forces Beane to gut his own team at mid-season, trading and cutting until Howe has to play Beane’s guys. Then the team starts winning and we’re dealing with the rising tension of breaking baseball’s longest winning streak (at the time it was 19 games). Moneyball does very well cycling through these conflicts and Wally Pfsiter’s (Inception, The Dark Knight) crisp photography serves the straightforward storytelling well. The smaller roles are filled out nicely by guys like Chris Pratt (Parks and Recreation), who acquits himself nicely and, like Hill, shows he can do more than just funny.
So where did Moneyball lose me? With the daughter. Kerris Dorsey (Brothers & Sisters) is cute and adorable as Beane’s daughter, Casey, and shows herself to be a capable child actress. But she is totally pointless in Moneyball. Here’s the thing—this could have been the greatest movie about baseball ever made, and instead, just like every baseball movie before it, it chickens out and shoves some human-interest angle down our throats so we can say, “Oh, it’s not really about baseball.” Because baseball isn’t enough. It’s never enough. Name me a great “baseball movie” and I’ll tell you what it’s really about.
Field of Dreams? Fathers, sons, grief and forgiveness.
The Natural? Redemption, loyalty and why women are the devil.
A League of Their Own? Sisterhood, sibling rivalry, discovering sexuality, forgiveness.
Bull Durham? A romantic dramedy set in the world of minor league baseball.
See? None of them can just be about baseball. There’s always an angle. (Although this remains one my favorite scenes ever.) Moneyball’s angle arrives in the form of the precocious Casey. She’s meant to humanize Beane, to give us a way to relate to him outside of baseball. And she works very well in that way and I know you’re all going to go, “I loved her, she made the movie!” That’s fine. I just remember The Social Network, and its greatness that derived from not making us care about Mark Zuckerberg. There’s no back story, no traumatic high school bullying anecdotes, no parental strife, no home drama. The Social Network derived specialness from its lack of affection for its protagonist. I’m not saying Beane needed to be unlikeable (because in real life he seems an affable dude and I really hope these rumors about him coming to be the Cubs GM are true), but did we HAVE to care about his family life? Why wasn’t baseball enough for this movie? Because of all the really good baseball films that have come before it, I think Moneyball, which is in every other way an excellent film, could have been the one to JUST be about baseball and be GREAT about baseball.
But please, do tell me why baseball isn’t enough.