There's really no reason Moneyball should have been a good movie. It's an adaptation of a nonfiction book about an obscure economics practice called sabremetrics, the story of a baseball team that was only moderately successful, even a starring role from Brad Pitt, an actor who usually turns into a bland husk of himself when playing an everyman. Any one of these things would be enough to destroy a lesser movie, but Moneyball is remarkable and resilient in the face of everything working against it. Director Bennett Miller, who took over when Steven Soderbergh's version of the story was scrapped at the 11th hour, hasn't turned in a traditional Hollywood sports movie, but a meditative and thoughtful examination of the disappointment and dogged hopes that make for those much-publicized victories on the field.
The mood is definitely there, but the story doesn't quite cut it-- despite featuring A-list writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball doesn't properly manage its big cast of characters or even the sad history of Billy Beane (Pitt), a promising big-leagues recruit straight out of high school who managed to go nowhere in the majors. We spend large chunks of the film enmeshed in Beane's back story or his personal life (including a tiny role from Robin Wright as his ex-wife), but it all seems like blatant exposition for character traits that Pitt gets across in one crinkled, bittersweet smile. As the fast-talking, turbulent and passionate Beane, Pitt has never been better, casually owning the screen with the charisma he's never quite gotten across onscreen so well. His scenes with Jonah Hill, who plays the new recruit assistant General Manager Peter Brand, crackle with enough wit and energy to completely gloss over the film's other flaws. Had Moneyball just been the two of them and their crazy schemes, it may well have been perfect.
In classic sports movie fashion, Moneyball begins with our hero and his team in the pits, the Oakland A's having just lost both the World Series and star player Jason Giambi to the New York Yankees (Johnny Damon, their other big name, went to the Red Sox). Beane is frustrated in meetings with the usual brain trust of scouts and statisticians at the A's, and in a failed attempt to trade some players with the Cleveland Indians Beane meets Brand, whom he yanks out of his cubicle office with a jangly authority that quickly becomes Beane's defining characteristic. Soon Beane and Brand are an inseparable team, picking out the misfits and forgotten gems strewn amid the MLB roster, building up the A's as a team that seems, to everyone else in the business, completely worthless.
We know from decades of sports stories that they're just a band of underdogs waiting for their chance to succeed, and there's a familiar pleasure in watching Chris Pratt's Scott Hatteberg adjust to playing first base, or former superstar David Justice (Stephen Bishop) learning to be a team player again. But the film's real wit comes in all the inter-office conflicts, where Beane is constantly at loggerheads with team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, good but underused) and Beane and Brand execute trades over the phones with the skill and precision of a bank heist. One phone scene in particular, with Brand feeding Beane player names and Beane chomping maniacally on snacks stashed in his drawer, feels as alive as anything I've seen on film this year. Though many of the other characters, including Howe, Hatteberg and those old-school scouts, don't fully develop as screen presences, the relationship between Beane and Brand is executed so perfectly that it makes up for it.
Miller only sparingly uses the lush green grass and glaring stadium lights, the iconic images of baseball that are treated like a sideshow oddity next to the real work that happens amid cinderblock walls and dingy gyms behind the scenes. Beane doesn't watch the games, and for a long time neither do we, meaning that when it finally comes time for us to watch a game play out, it's hard to know how to invest our hopes and understanding of what might happen. But Moneyball, as the cynical title suggests, isn't about the magic of the game but the calculations and negotiations that make it possible; the only reason we get a glimpse of that green grass that puts a lump in our throats is because it puts a lump in Billy Beane's too. That prickly hero is the reason Moneyball succeeds, but Pitt's immense presence also topples the movie's balance, making it a character study that overshadows the actual story it had to tell.