Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Adapted from Michael Lewis' best-seller, "Moneyball" makes the down-and-dirty business side of baseball painful fun to follow. Remember those old '30s musicals that generated sizzle out of backstage machinations, charismatic producers conning investors and starstruck unknowns hitting the big time? That's how "Moneyball" plays, not so much in the ballpark but in offices and deep pockets, on phones and computers -- and best of all, through agile conversational pitch-and-catch. Spotlighting the muscle, brain and skill that goes into getting The Show on the road, this remarkably absorbing baseball saga hits a homer to the heart and mind.
Chronicling how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane reinvented baseball by using "sabermetrics," a statistical approach to fielding teams, "Moneyball" is sure to please old-school fans. But this spectacle of idiosyncratic losers carried away by counterintuitive theory and rollercoaster process should captivate a larger audience, too. Call it "The Social Network" for the boys of summer.
This is Bennett Miller's second movie in six years, after debuting with the Oscar-winning "Capote." Taking over from Steven Soderbergh, originally set to direct, Miller avoids the cerebral, "Contagion" approach to a game cherished by stubborn romantics and animated by big money. The way he looks at the colorful backroom types who pull the strings is simultaneously loving, knowing and unforgiving. Backed by screenwriters Steve Zaillian and sharp-witted "Social Network" scribe Aaron Sorkin, Miller does right by the highs and lows of baseball and its on-and-off-the-field players. And he's a dab hand at framing the angst and emptiness that settles over dark, depopulated slopes of bleachers, where Beane, a man whose fight is always and only with himself, broods.
Hemingway used to write a lot about losers like Billy Beane and his A's; the undefeated, he called them. The ones he liked best were beat-up bozos who just kept on punching, going down in grace. Probably Hemingway would have enjoyed "Moneyball," which features a team that wins 20 straight games even though (because?) it's comprised of losers and misfits, then flames out in the playoffs. This sports suspenser insistently pushes its broken hero toward self-knowledge that transcends victory. At the end of the day, it only looks like Billy's on the losing side. In Hemingway's rulebook, only surrender or selling out closes down any game that counts.
The team that "Moneyball" really cares about is Brad Pitt, as Billy Beane, and Jonah Hill, playing Peter Brand, a Yale economics grad who computerizes stats to come up with what only a madman -- or a visionary -- could call a dream team (someone disses the A's as "the island of misfit toys"). The deep rapport that develops between Pitt's fast-talking glad-hander and Hill's quiet dork, the buff movie star and the plump second banana in Peter Pan comedies, is the beating heart of the movie. Watching these unlikely bros jam, effortlessly hitting behavioral and conversational grace notes, reassures you that great movie action doesn't have to always look and sound like gunfire, explosions, heavy metal.
Pitt's deft performance just looks easy. In flashbacks, we learn that Beane was once a phenom who turned down a Stanford scholarship for big bucks and the chance to shine in The Show. The scouts were wrong. Playing in the big leagues, the kid bombs spectacularly. So one thing we know about the guy who won't watch his team play for fear of jinxing them: Deep down, where raw ego lives, Billy seethes because he believes he's doomed to lose.
But that's all under wraps: Full of genial patter, Pitt's a cunning con man in the trading trenches, whip-smart about the odds against the A's putting together a winning team after three of their best players are bought off by the New York Yankees. Wrangling trades in the Cleveland Indians' office, crowded from behind by a row of stone-faced suits, he tries to con a condescending GM (Reed Diamond, excellent). Billy's down on almost every count, and he knows it; the room's arranged for maximum humiliation of the man in the hot seat. But even as he's taking punches, Pitt's fighter never drops the professional bonhomie that covers up flop sweat. And with the sharp eyes of a cornered animal, he's spotted the real talent in the room.
That's Peter Brand, a strangely self-contained cubicle-dweller so secure in his number-crunching smarts he doesn't budge an inch, under assault by Billy or a roomful of grizzled scouts. A deadpan cherub, Hill rarely cracks a smile, but the laser-beam fierceness of his concentration just about burns up the screen. He listens to Billy as though sucking wisdom through a straw. When this tightly wound soul almost loses it -- after he and Billy orchestrate an exhilarating, fast-action trading coup by phone -- you can see how much the game and the pleasure of playing and holding his own with Brad/Billy mean to the kid. Pitt's outstanding performance simply could not exist without Hill.
"I want it to mean something ... otherwise what's the point?" agonizes Beane at the height of the A's record-breaking winning streak. Suddenly, out of dead silence, comes the sharp crack of wood hitting cowhide. Maybe that's meaning enough.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.