Several years ago, a member of the Oakland A's front-office revolutionized baseball by applying statistical analysis in game scenarios. But enough about Tony LaRussa. Moneyball, the new sports flick directed by Bennett Miller, stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the A's general manager who, a decade after LaRussa's tenure, whisked away computer wiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) from the hapless Cleveland Indians and took the concept a step further: The Athletics hired players based on a combination of their underpaid salaries and overlooked potential -- bringing in three utility men, for example, to replace the departing high-priced free agent Jason Giambi. Brand's argument -- based on his computer algorithm -- is that you don't need stars to win, you just need runs; and you get runs, Brand explains, by getting players who can get on base.
Moneyball makes it clear from the start that, for Beane, necessity is the mother of invention. Losing to the Yankees in the playoffs, followed by the Giambi/Damon exodus during the offseason, opens his eyes to the reality that his team won't win by playing the same game of other teams with higher payrolls. Yet Pitt's performance hints at reserves of stubbornness and wounded pride. Flashbacks reveal that Billy Beane was once a promising baseball prospect himself, and rejected a scholarship at Stanford for a disappointing pro career. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin's script very cleverly makes Beane an underdog, no small feat for a character who is essentially a suit. Over the decades, sports movies have gone from athlete protagonists to coaches and now finally GMs; I'm not sure what it says about our era, but at some point, a film with an owner as hero seems inevitable.
Yet part of the problem I had with Moneyball is how it plays fast and loose with its own convictions in exchange for our sympathies. Early on, Brand claims (and Jonah Hill's softspokenness sells it) that his system, far from being impersonal, recognizes the value of players who aren't being given any. Then the movie goes on to suggest that managers, like the A's own Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), bring nothing to the table except their own egos and old school misconceptions on how the game should be played. The movie is grotesquely unfair to Howe, emphasizing that Beane used to be a player -- and is therefore different from standard front-office types -- yet careful not to mention that Howe used to play too. But even if you only focus on what's onscreen, Moneyball doesn't track. In his first scene, the Howe in the movie argues (persuasively) that he deserves a better contract for his accomplishments the previous season. Beane promises to look into it, and then other than a passing mention that Howe didn't get a new deal, the subject is dropped. We don't learn the reason behind Beane's decision, or whether he might have been unfair, because Zaillian and Sorkin's script is eager to paint Howe as the bad guy in the piece, and in their world being a bad guy is synonymous with being a bad manager.
Or, worse, an irrelevant one. Moneyball has to have the first ever go-for-it sports-movie montage where the GM trains the players how to win. Howe is depicted as an obstacle in their path to success, refusing to start new first baseman Scott Hatteberg (a charming Chris Pratt from Parks & Recreation) until Beane trades away all of Howe's other options. But the most dubious scene is one where Howe is shown walking away from the locker room, where the A's, following another loss, are partying with loud music. (Well, really just one player: Jeremy Giambi, Jason's kid brother.) Beane enters the locker room and breaks up the celebration by yelling at everyone and throwing a baseball bat. No doubt some will wonder why Beane didn't hit an innocent person with that bat, and kill that individual, and how he has never seen a scene like that in a sports movie, and how a scene like that would be really interesting -- whereas I was merely left not buying the implication that the GM was doing the manager's job for him.
There are other problems at the script level. A key subplot involving Hatteberg's struggle to play first-base (having spent his career as a catcher) leads to a dead end; we never learn if he masters the position. And a scene where Howe, in a belated pique of good will, brings in Hatteberg to pinch-hit at a crucial moment, makes no sense: Isn't he a starter and already in the lineup? Arguably there are even bigger problems at the direction level, with Miller taking a story that should have a sunny disposition and screwball-comedy tempo and applying the same bleak gray color scheme and molasses pacing that he did with Capote. It's amazing that despite these things Moneyball remains moderately entertaining. Credit Pitt for continuing to come into his own as a movie star (and for a light touch that takes some of the heaviness off the inexplicably portentous music), and Hill, whom I have previously despised, for taking a page from his character's philosophy and discovering his potential within his own limited range. As a movie, with tough-to-dramatize material, Moneyball works reasonably well enough within the current Hollywood system. But it's no game-changer.