I was a bit hesitant to see Moneyball. I love baseball and love baseball films even more — there’s just something about the sport that translates so well to film — but a movie about the back room building of a MLB team seemed about as interesting to me as watching SportsCenter on ESPN at 2AM on its third or fourth replay.
Of course, this movie isn’t about just any baseball team — this is the 2002 Oakland Athletics, which, with General Manager Billy Beane, fundamentally changed the National Pastime by looking at players’ stats in a completely different mathematical way than team managements had for the previous one hundred years. Sabermetrics — a new system of evaluating the talent of a player that reveals diamonds in the rough — may be common knowledge to baseball fans in 2011, but entering the 2002 season the A’s were on paper one of the worst teams in baseball. That is, only if you weren’t looking at the team like Beane was.
That makes Moneyball more of a Wall Street-ish business film than it is a baseball film, yet it remains a funny, dialogue-driven film that unfortunately will probably not get much of a wider audience outside of the ESPN junkies. After all, at some point almost all baseball fans stop daydreaming of themselves as the players and imagine themselves to be management. In fact, it is a movie tailor-made for the fantasy baseball crowd, who will no doubt see themselves as the Brad Pitt‘s Billy Beane trying to build a baseball team on a budget less than the average public school has these days. We can easily feel the frustration of Pitt, in the best subdued role he’s played since The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, as he tries to convince a room full of grey-haired scouts (one even has a hearing aid to hammer home just how old he is) to invest in players with stats other teams overlook. In that way Moneyball is about the rejection of tradition and the fickleness of sports media. We hear sports radio callers and broadcasters rip Beane when his statistical-based team plays poorly and praise him when the team is on its record-breaking winning streak. It’s not only the best film ever made about the business of baseball, but the best film ever made about the fantasy aspect of the game — those who sit at their computers with unrestrained budgets who put together teams without important factors like ticket sales to consider.
But Beane struggles with more than just the team. We get bits of Beane’s past as a underperforming player and his family life. Luckily the film doesn’t get too sidetracked with Beane’s family problems — blink and you’ll miss Robert Wright, who plays Beane’s ex-wife — which a lesser film would do to build sympathy for the character. With little prompting we understand Beane is a divorced father and his wife has a new awkward husband without the film hitting us over the head with the plot.
Beane’s family life allows us to see the adorable Kerris Dorsey as Casey, Beane’s daughter. The talented Dorsey has a presence beyond her age, and that’s impressive. Nonetheless, the film’s true revelation is Jonah Hill as Beane’s Assistant GM Peter Brand (a stand-in for Paul DePodesta, who didn’t want his name in the film). Admittedly I have never been a fan of Hill’s brand of “say bad word really loud” comedy (like he’s the vulgar version of Sinbad), and unlike most of America I thought Superbad was an unfunny and uninteresting story of two pathetic teenage boys who are secretly in love with each other (come on, they even cuddle at the end!) But Moneyball makes me hope that along with Hill’s recent weight loss (though that’s not evident in this film — he’s larger here than I’ve ever seen him) he steers toward more dramatic roles. It’s impressive for an actor his age who is more commonly known for his supporting comedic roles. His slack-jawed just-out-of-college persona never dips for a moment, and he has no problem holding his weight (no pun intended) against Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who doesn’t appear much in the film but makes a great “villain” as the ambivalent manager Art Howe who cares more about his own contract than actually fielding a good team (and as a long-suffering Mets fan, I was happy to see Howe portrayed so negatively). Hoffman does what he needs to do here and as usual makes it seem easy.
Yes, Moneyball is one of those films for a select crowd — you have to like baseball and you have to like the business of building a sports team to really enjoy it. There’s enough here to enjoy if you don’t, but if you really have no interest in the concept it deserves a pass, yet if you have even the slightest interest in the business of baseball you’ll devour it. The performances are that good, and the true-life narrative is that engaging.
I can’t imagine recommending Moneyball to a general crowd, but it’s definitely the movie all the fantasy leaguers and the armchair GMs have been waiting for. I know I loved it, just don’t expect to see many on-field heroics: yes Moneyball is a Rocky movie, but a Rocky movie that celebrates the brain over the body.
Final Score: 9/10 — An inspiring sports movie totally different from any other one ever made.