Directed By: Bennett Miller
“There are rich teams and there are poor teams,” Billy Bean (Pitt) declares to a room full of wrinkly, hearing-aided Oakland Athletics scouts, “then there is fifty feet of crap, and then there is us. It’s an unfair game.” As the General Manager of the team that just lost its three best players, and is operating with the lowest spending budget in the Major Leagues, Bean is faced with the problem of building a championship team with relatively no money. Though he is not yet sure how, he realizes that they must “evolve or die” in this dog-eat-dog world of professional baseball. Just when everything (including his job) seems lost, Bean inadvertently stumbles across a potential solution to his problem in the timid form of Peter Brand (Hill), an awkward, bulky young man and recent grad of Yale in economics. “Baseball thinking is medieval,” Hill’s character tells Pitt on their first paradigm-shifting meeting. “There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening…. What I see is an imperfect understanding of where runs come from.” A new way of looking at and interpreting player statistics is the key to building a successful program. Under this impetus, Bean and his new advisor, the Rasputin of Ratios, set out to redefine the value system that has built up around the game of baseball during the last 100 years.
Another hot contender for a number of awards in this year’s Oscars®, Moneyball (if you will excuse the totally obvious cliché) hit a somewhat unexpected homerun for Columbia Pictures, grossing in the top 50 films of the year, and earning acclaim by critics and audiences alike. The book on which the film is based was apparently so statically oriented, that many did not see how it would translate into and entertaining movie, and underwent a series of re-writes (the extremely capable hands of both Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin), Directors (Frankel, Soderberg, Miller), and interchanging cast member (Demitri Martin was first slated to play the part of Peter Brand) before it ever saw the light of day.
In the hands of a relatively inexperienced, yet highly successful director Bennett Miller (Capote), Moneyball feels like three different films for the price of one. Part documentary, part sports flick, and part melodrama, the film somehow stays nicely balanced, engaging and entertaining throughout. Much like Capote before it, Miller seems to be particularly good at capturing the more subtle moments in human interaction, and is not scared of keeping the silent or empty spaces within a scene, which only hint at a deeper subtext.
With back-to-back best adapted screenplay nominations, Aaron Sorkin creates another interesting character study, but one that somehow lacks the emotional punch and ambiguity that The Social Network delivered so effectively. At various points throughout Moneyball we see Pitt sitting alone, driving alone, or working out alone, struggling with the inner demons of doubt and regret he has been carrying for years. We are informed through a series of flashbacks that Bean feels he may have been cheated out of his true potential early in life because he signed into the Majors right out of high school instead of taking a full-ride scholarship to Stanford. In examining the implications of this a little closer however, one can see how absurd of a proposition it is we are asked to swallow. Are we really supposed to feel bad for this All-American boy who was not only blessed with looks, charm, intelligence, and talent, but now finds himself in a profession and position within that profession that most sports fans and fantasy league fanatics would kill for the chance to occupy? When it comes to drawing straws in life, I don’t think anyone would truly believe that Bean came out with the short one in the cup, yet somehow this is precisely what we are asked to do. In The Social Network, much like Zuckerberg’s real-life ambivalence, Sorkin does not particularly seem to care if the audience comes out liking or disliking the protagonist, in fact, we are encouraged to feel a little bit of both. This wonderful confusion is not present in Moneyball however, and at times, the film verges on becoming laughably melodramatic.
Pitt, attempting to add distinctive characterization with his speed eating, and big hand clapping, gives a charming, but not particularly noteworthy performance in the film. If angry outbursts and moody distance staring qualifies one to earn an Academy Award for best actor, I would stand behind Michael Shannon’s performance in Take Shelter over Pitt. Shannon’s internal tension in the film is gut-wrenchingly palpable and his inevitable, primal outburst truly frightening to watch.
Jonah Hill takes a pretty dramatic u-turn from his typical flamboyant fair for his role as Bean’s awkward apprentice (Hill probably does more talking in one scene of Superbad than he does throughout the entire film). Many of the great moments in the film come from the oddly compelling screen chemistry that develops between the two as the film moves along. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, one that finds Bean tutoring Brand in how to live his life as a confident Alpha-male (a role that Bean was born playing), while Brand simultaneously tutors Pitt in seeing the game through his selectively statistical paradigm.
While there are a number of wonderful small performances in the film (Spike Jonze makes an uncredited cameo as Bean’s ex-wife’s new-agey husband), the paunchy stoicism embodied in Phillip Seymore Hoffman stands out and adds a crucial antagonism to the mix. Playing a strikingly similar role to that of Paul Zara, Clooney’s Campaign Manager in The Ides Of March, Hoffman provides the practical counterpoint to Bean and Brand’s tunnel vision, resisting change until (what is probably the best scene in the film) he literally has no other option but to comply.
The film in general brings up some very interesting questions about the world of professional sports and the American culture from which it grew out of/reflects. I couldn’t help comparing Bean and the scouts’ conflict about the game to the conflict of The Bush Administration and many American educators when the No Child Left Behind act was introduced in 2001 (the same time we start following Bean in the film coincidentally). What is to be valued higher: the well-rounded individual, or the selectively competent one? What defines success: winning the last game of the season, or accomplishing great things during it? We all know deep down that no one ultimately wins the last game, so why not (as Bean’s daughter and Lenka both suggest) just enjoy the show?