Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Kerris Dorsey, Robin Wright
Rating: PG-13, for occasional profanity
You just can’t beat the romantic, almost spiritual atmosphere of a good baseball movie.
“Moneyball” is a rather unconventional baseball movie, to be sure, but one suffused with its own type of magic.
Director Bennett Miller’s thoughtful drama, ostensibly a profile of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), actually concerns one man’s quixotic quest to rewrite the fundamental principle that had driven baseball for decades: the notion that the best team could — would — be assembled by obtaining the best players money could buy.
And for “best,” insert “most expensive.” After all, a player commanding an eight-figure salary must be worth every penny, right?
Scripters Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”), working from a story by Stan Chervin — who, in turn, adapted Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” — have quite cleverly written the “All the President’s Men” of baseball.
Just as William Goldman spun espionage and intrigue from the grinding research and day-to-day fact-checking of newspaper reporters, Sorkin and Zaillian have made a rich, engrossing brew of economics, statistics and charts.
We meet Beane and his Oakland Athletics in the aftermath of the 2001 season, just as their best players are cherry-picked by other franchises with deeper pockets. The A’s are left gutted, with Beane nearly apoplectic over the realization that his team is little more than a candy store for the Yankees and other wealthier rivals.
A humiliating attempt to horse-trade with the Cleveland Indians draws Beane’s attention to somebody who seems out of place in that office: a quiet, couch-potato nebbish whose opinion inexplicably carries some weight. Beane tracks this individual to his desk — a delightful scene, well staged by Miller — and thus meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).
Brand is a stats freak who candidly expresses his frustration over the fact that — in his view — people are going about the “science” of building a baseball team in entirely the wrong way.
Beane returns to Oakland having made only one purchase: Peter Brand.
Knowing he can neither outbid nor outplay wealthier franchises via traditional methods, Beane embraces Brand’s philosophy of aggregate statistics: pursuing (for example) a weak thrower, in exchange for the same man’s impressive at-bat percentages. Brand’s operating mantra — backed by impressively detailed charts — is that so-called star players are overpaid for their actual skills, which often aren’t terribly well-rounded.
Better, therefore, to assemble a team of less expensive “overlooked misfits” who, collectively, can deliver the same goods. An intriguing theory … but would it work in actual (batting) practice?
Longtime sports fans — particularly those who play fantasy baseball — will recognize this as Sabermetrics, defined by co-creator Bill James as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” Those same fans also will recognize that Peter Brand never existed; his character is the shorthand personification of an entire squad of economic analysts the real-world Beane hired, in an effort to replace scouting hunches and gut instincts with hard science.
This is a typical screenwriters’ ploy, and a brilliant one: The always engaging dynamic between Pitt and Hill fuels this film. Pitt’s Beane is dedicated, driven and wholly consumed by his desire to out-maneuver the other franchise owners who regard the A’s with pitying glances. Hill’s Brand simply loves the game itself: idolizes it all out of proportion, to quote Woody Allen’s line about New York City.
Beane’s chief tormentor is field manager Art Howe, played with smoldering disdain by an almost unrecognized, balding and portly Philip Seymour Hoffman. These physical characteristics are key to Howe’s character, because the man simply refuses to let Beane mess with game line-up and field strategy, traditionally the field manager’s role.
Hoffman is thoroughly credible in this role, as with everything he touches; Howe is utterly intractable … but we sense, at this man’s core, that he can be persuaded. Somehow. Eventually.
Hill is a hoot, but Brand isn’t mere comedy relief. This young actor has grown considerably since his vulgar sidekick days in the likes of “Knocked Up” and “Superbad,” and he makes the most of his craftily conceived character here. Brand is never quite sure when Beane is putting him on, and Hill plays that uncertainty to perfection.
Young Kerris Dorsey, recognized from television’s “Brothers and Sisters,” plays Billy’s daughter, Casey. The girl has a truly lovely scene with her father, while they search a music store for a guitar; the devoted expression on Pitt’s face is transcendent.
Underdog baseball movies generally are comedies — as with, say, “Major League” — and the players therefore are star turns by a familiar ensemble cast; as a result, they’re far from real. Not so the actors assembled here: a collection of mostly unknowns, many of them former ball players, who therefore look and sound authentic … and vulnerable.
Chris Pratt stands out as injured catcher-turned-first baseman Scott Hatteberg: a guy grateful for this second chance, who nonetheless fears that his own deficiencies will get in the way. Stephen Bishop delivers a similarly nuanced performance as fading All-Star left fielder David Justice: a player “aging out” in his mid-30s.
Despite the story’s serious nature, and the atmosphere of desperation that hovers over this gamble, Miller’s tone can be unexpectedly funny. Credit Zaillian and Sorkin for their marvelous script; Sorkin, in particular, previously wrestled taut drama and frequent humor from the equally unlikely realm of computer nerds in “The Social Network.” A composite character like Peter Brand is right up Sorkin’s alley.
Mostly, though, Miller gets the tone right: the enchanting, exhilarating, indefinable bliss of baseball. Pitt conveys this as well, with every reverential glance at a ball park.
And, to the credit of all, the story is told more or less properly. Scripting shortcuts such as Peter Brand aside, Miller, Zaillian and Sorkin don’t rewrite the essential history; longtime fans also know what eventually happened to the 2002 Athletics. It’s a helluva story, and I’ve no doubt baseball buffs will take this film to heart.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com