There’s an ugly and unromantic truth behind Bennett Miller’s baseball stats semi-comedy Moneyball that it acknowledges and then dances away from.
Brad Pitt seems ambivalent about Moneyball. As Billy Beane, the onetime star pro baseball rookie who washed out and ended up as general manager for the perennial underdog team the Oakland A’s, Pitt carries himself just right. He has the loose-limbed swagger of the former athlete who never let himself go physically, as well as the wary combativeness of a man who has to work at getting along with people. Beane is a man who never had anything come easy to him and thinks, correctly, that he has to fight for all that he wants. Pitt brings off this performance with a tired ease that’s too easy for him – it’s like watching Russell Crowe play an over-the-hill detective or George Clooney a washed-up gigolo.
Pitt’s ambivalence about his character spreads to the whole of this film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s nonfiction bestseller, which Pitt and his production company had been circling for some time. There are two major credited screenwriters, Steve Zallian and Aaron Sorkin, who seem to do all that they can to distract audiences from the fact that this is a film about baseball statistics and losing. It doesn’t work. What they came up with is a film that straddles a number of divergent positions and attitudes, never quite settling on any of them. That it can do so while still remaining a perfectly credible lightweight drama (which appears to skirt the factual record almost as much as Sorkin’s The Social Network) is testament to the skill of the team involved.
Moneyball starts in fine underdog form. In 2011, the A’s lose their division to the Yankees, the ever-imperial overlords of professional baseball whose payroll compares to the A’s in the same way that the United States’ military budget compares to that of Canada. Right afterward, the A’s also lose their star player, Jason Giambi, to the Yankees and Johnny Damon to the Red Sox, the second biggest-spenders in the league. Following a gutting like that, the A’s buckle down and do what they and every other team does: figure out how to replace their stars with a budget that guarantees they won’t be able to afford that kind of talent.
In what should have been the film’s great showdown, a downbeat Beane finds himself in a conference room with a grizzled squad of scouts who spout a variety of dogmatic truisms about players that seem based more in urban folklore than serious study. Beane’s frustration boils off of him listening to it, yet he doesn’t seem to be able to find a different way. When Beane happens to spot a surpassingly meek number-cruncher in a rival team’s office when he’s there to trade players, however, he asks the kid a few questions about his methods and then hires him as a rebuttal to the old scouts’ way of doing things. When the kid, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, so downbeat he seems sedated), starts making his case that none of the traditional baseball dogma matters, arguing instead to bring in players based solely on their ability to get on base, it’s a quiet revolution.
Some sparks do fly between Beane and the old guard after Brand’s statistics-driven methods are put into play, but it’s a muted thing. Director Bennett Miller isn’t one for fireworks, as evidenced by his muted character study Capote, and this becomes clear during a long-simmering feud between Beane and his team manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Hoffman does a slow burn in his scenes, pacing like a caged creature, infuriated at being forced to field a team of who he considers mediocrities just because they hit the right dollars-to-on-base percentage in Brand’s spreadsheet. Like so many of the other conflicts in the film, though, this one just peters out.
Too often, the film seems unaware of its purpose. Is it trying to tell the story of a revolutionary development in modern sports? If so, it’s a quixotic attempt, as the stats-driven approach followed by Beane’s team ultimately did little but give big-spending teams like the Red Sox another tool in their arsenal, a way of spending their massive warchest even more efficiently. There are moments when the film is plugged into this anti-romantic reality, particularly in a scene following the A’s legendary 2001 winning streak. At this point, even the stoic Brand appears to have finally shed his armor of numbers and to have embraced the heroic nature of the game, only to have Brand haul him back to reality by saying that electrifying last-minute victories and highly dramatic moments might sell hot dogs and season tickets but in the long run they don’t matter. Not when the goal is nothing but improving on-base percentages in a way that takes them to the World Series, and winning. If it had followed the implications of this statement to its logical conclusion (it’s not a sport, it’s not a game, it’s calculus, cold and cruel and unforgiving) then Moneyball would have made for a film as revolutionary as the statistics method is purported to be. But it waffles at crucial moments, leaving an air of purposelessness over this collection of admittedly well-handled moments.
The purposelessness dogs Pitt’s character as well. We’re treated to some de rigueur scenes involving his ex-wife and their daughter that are meant to serve in lieu of actual character development. (The same is attempted with a series of overly extended flashbacks to Beane’s abortive major-league stint.) Pitt ambles through it all in game fashion, striking up a decent rapport with Hill, but never making much of an impact. The actors are by and large well-served by Miller’s direction, which is crisp and sharp in a number of ways – watch the subtle off-kiltered nature of Arliss Howard in a late appearance as a Red Sox bigwig; it’s a scene played at such a curious and offbeat angle that for a moment you forget that you’re watching an actor, a trick that Pitt can’t quite pull off.
Moneyball is a shaggy dog story that never achieves lovability. Like Beane with his players – who he mostly avoids in order to make it easier to let them go – the film holds its characters and the implications of its story at a cool distance.