Name something that tastes good with mustard?
The hungry heart of "Moneyball," a movie about baseball in the digital age, is a beautiful hard case named Billy Beane. Coiled yet cool, Billy has the liquid physical grace and bright eyes of a predator. He was built to win. Even his name, with its short syllabic bursts, sounds ready for ESPN exultations. That he's played by Brad Pitt giving the quintessential Brad Pitt performance just seals the deal. It didn't turn out that way, and in 2001 this high school star turned major-league washout was no longer a player but the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, the little team that could but didn't.
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Magazine Preview: Billy Beane of 'Moneyball' Has Given Up on His Own Hollywood Ending (September 25, 2011)
Sony Slate a Big Bet on Dramas (September 12, 2011)
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Melinda Sue Gordon
Jonah Hill in "Moneyball."
Well, sometimes it did. In 2001 the A's actually finished second in the American League West, but that October, in the game that opens the movie, they lost the Division Series to the New York Yankees. The score was 5-3, but as numbers that flash across the screen suggest - $114,457,768 vs. $39,722,689 - that loss, in the final game of a five-game series, was nowhere near a humiliation. Based on Michael Lewis's nimble, joyously entertaining nonfiction chronicle of the Athletics' sprint toward the top despite the odds and dollar signs, "Moneyball" is an exuberant fictionalized look at how Mr. Beane helped transform the team, one of the poorest in baseball, into serious competition for the wealthiest franchises, mostly by ignoring everything he'd been taught about the game.
The old baseball knowledge, as more than a few earlier movies have taught, was built on rich whiffs of romance and new sod, and highly subjective ideas about what it takes to win, including looking right for the part, having a certain stance on the mound, even a good face. Early in "Moneyball" there's a funny scene of Billy (who of course has a great face), sitting around with his council of elders: the old-timers, mostly, who scour the country for the next big hope. The old men are jawing about the pluses and minuses of draft prospects, ticking off assets and defects but also body parts. At times they sound as if they're looking for Saturday night dates, not athletes.
Billy knows there's something wrong about this received wisdom (one scout insists that an ugly girlfriend means that a player doesn't have confidence), but he doesn't have the tools to fix the problem. He gets them when he meets Peter Brand (a just-right Jonah Hill), a computer whiz with an economics degree from Yale and a big man's waddle. (The character is based on Mr. Beane's slim former assistant, the Harvard-educated Paul DePodesta, now the vice president for player development and amateur scouting for the New York Mets.) With his glasses and middle-management jackets, Peter looks like he should be crunching numbers at an accounting firm. But there's a baseball clutched in his hand and a love of the game tucked deep in his being right alongside a radical way of understanding baseball statistics.
Directed by Bennett Miller, from a sharp, sleek script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (and a story by Stan Chervin) that smartly borrows lines from Mr. Lewis's book as well as its giddy irreverence, "Moneyball" is a story about how Billy, with Peter's help and his laptop crammed with numbers, trades old knowledge for new. It's a story of baseball and bean counters, the hunt and the kill, yet while there are on-field scenes, the movie is less about the game as a pastime or passion or even a cruel capitalist sport than as a great epistemological problem. What is the question? Billy asks his bewildered scouts right before hiring Peter, a guy with a poster of Plato hanging above his bed.
Like "The Social Network," which is about the creation of Facebook and yet so much more (it was also written by Mr. Sorkin) "Moneyball" is about a fundamental cultural shift and the rise of the information elite. Instead of going by instinct, Peter knows what he knows because he's a disciple of Bill James, a once-marginal figure who, starting in 1977, began publishing an abstract that offered a new, rationalized way of looking at the game. In a nutshell, Mr. James looked at baseball statistics in a different light, less by breaking the numbers down in another way but by seeing that what appeared to be objective facts, like fielding statistics, were, as he wrote, "a record of opinions." And these numbers didn't just describe baseball; they gave the game its language, its "fiction and drama and poetry."
Like a linguist Mr. James studied that language, looked at its form, context, meaning, and called his new approach sabermetrics. Among other things he could see value in underappreciated, often underpaid and ignored players whom conventional thinkers saw as destined for the minors. In the movie Peter preaches this new gospel to Billy, who embraces it with born-again fervor, partly because it clarifies the mystery of why he never became the player he was drafted to be: he had the tools, as the scouts like to say, but they just didn't work in the majors. (In reality it was a former general manager of the A's, Sandy Alderson, now with the Mets, who introduced Mr. Beane to Mr. James's work.)
Mr. Miller, largely shaking off the official art-house pretensions of his breakout feature, "Capote," takes all this seemingly dry, dusty, inside-baseball stuff and turns it into the kind of all-too-rare pleasurable Hollywood diversion that gives you a contact high. He still has his serious, or rather too-serious, side: he bookends the story with ophthalmologically close shots of Billy's eyes shining in the dark, as if soliciting you to peep into the windows of a soul that, as much as any man's or woman's can be revealed, emerges through the script and Mr. Pitt's fully inhabited, appealingly barbed performance. There are some overhead shots of the A's emerald field too, including one of a large American flag being unfurled, that feel like the efforts of a director needlessly looking for big symbolic moments, perhaps particularly post-Sept. 11.
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Melinda Sue Gordon
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Moneyball."
· Magazine Preview: Billy Beane of 'Moneyball' Has Given Up on His Own Hollywood Ending(September 25, 2011)
· Sony Slate a Big Bet on Dramas (September 12, 2011)
He needn't have bothered. The movie and its meaning are already there, in the details (the ugly rooms, the uglier clothing), the performances and especially in the emphasis on process and how teams and players are built and broken, saved and discarded. What works in "Moneyball" is showing not telling: the scenes of men doing and being and sometimes failing, as in the interwoven flashbacks to the young Billy, played by Reed Thompson. There's an unnecessary Sorkin-sounding lecture toward the finish that explains what you already know; for the most part, though, the screenplay obscures huge chunks of exposition through the radio chatter of announcers and listeners. And it gives Mr. Pitt, who hurtles through the movie, a chance to scat like a juiced-up Ella Fitzgerald, working his phones and seemingly every other general manager in the country, as he transforms a new baseball philosophy into action.
It's hard to imagine anyone but Mr. Pitt in the role. He's relaxed yet edgy and sometimes unsettling, as in his testy exchanges, bristling with tamped-down fury, with the A's manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, wearing a head of peach fuzz and a scowl). Though Mr. Miller holds onto the romance of baseball that Mr. James and others helped strip away (this is, after all, a tale of winners and losers), Billy doesn't really change: he just becomes his perfect self. When he first goes after Peter, he moves in like a shark. Initially Peter can't look Billy in the face, and when they talk, Peter keeps dropping his eyes, like the plain girl who can't believe the hottest guy at school is even talking to her. But he is.
"Moneyball" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Locker room chatter and cussing.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Bennett Miller; written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, based on a story by Stan Chervin and the book by Michael Lewis; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; music by Mychael Danna; production design by Jess Gonchor; costumes by Kasia Walicka Maimone; produced by Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt; released by Columbia Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes.
WITH: Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Robin Wright (Sharon), Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg), Stephen Bishop (David Justice) and Reed Thompson (young Billy).