Before Moneyball is a disappointing baseball movie or a disappointing battle-of-ideas movie, it's disappointing on basic aesthetic grounds.
This big-screen adaptation of Michael Lewis' 2003 nonfiction bestseller has undergone a turbulent trajectory to theaters, changing directors (Steven Soderbergh giving way to Capote's Bennett Miller), concepts (from essay-like docudrama to more conventional narrative), and screenwriters (Aaron Sorkin brought in to work on Steven Zaillian's script). And that whiplash uncertainty shows up in the finished product.
Lewis' story is a case study of industry upheaval: In 2001, after losing in the playoffs to a New York Yankees team with three times the payroll and then watching the big-budget Yankees and Red Sox sign away their best players, the Oakland A's and forward-thinking general manager Billy Beane are looking for a way to compete with fewer resources. They set about looking for players — and, more to the point, skills — undervalued in the marketplace, embracing the mode of statistical analysis — dubbed, for reasons too complicated to explain here, "sabermetrics" — that had been developing for more than 20 years.
Moneyball — book and movie — correctly credits writer Bill James (more philosopher than mathematician, really) with igniting this revolution. James was an outsider, self-publishing his work from his Kansas home starting in the late '70s. Moneyball is about how the work of James and others was adopted by insiders and connected to the economic issues within the baseball industry.
It's a good story — one that might have seemed "unfilmable" until the somewhat similarly pitched The Social Network exploded the same kind of doubts.
But the problems with the Moneyball that made it to the screen are legion, and they start with the basics: This film is poorly paced, filled with static conversation scenes that play more awkwardly than intended. It's unattractive — rooted in empty, darkened stadiums and dim gray-and-white corridors — and unimaginative when it attempts stylization, such as during slo-mo game sequences or fever-dream trips into Beane's psyche. Most disappointingly, there's just no snap to this picture, which is where it contrasts most sharply with The Social Network, which derived so much energy from the depiction of characters driven by ideas. It's hard to believe Sorkin — who scripted The Social Network — had a hand in this.
Ultimately, Moneyball is a movie that pretends to be smarter than it is. It hasn't internalized the complicated issues relevant to baseball's statistical revolution well enough to explain them to novice audiences. Small but essential points of statistical contention — the value of on-base percentage over flashier indicators like batting average and RBI, the risk-reward of steals and bunts, the advantages of forcing pitchers to throw more balls per at-bat — fly by without being fleshed out. Moneyball lacks the faith and ability to make general audiences care about this stuff the way The Social Network made audiences care about the development of Facebook.
An early indication of how little Moneyball knows or cares about its subject comes early, when Beane (played acceptably but with minimal distinction by Brad Pitt) travels to Cleveland during the offseason for face-to-face trade discussions with Indians exec Mark Shapiro. The scenes of Beane waiting in the Indians lobby and then being ushered into a room with Shapiro and all of his scouts to toss out names of middle relievers and minor-league outfielders will seem howlingly ridiculous to fans with even a cursory knowledge of how teams really operate.
But this is all just a way to set up a meet-cute between Beane and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young Indians staffer whose paunchy build, Yale economics degree, and spreadsheets make him an odd figure. Playing a somewhat more serious role than usual here, Hill uses his comic timing to make scenes work as well as they can. He might be the best thing in the movie.
Beane meets Brand — not a real person but a fictional composite of brainy junior executives Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, who figure in the book — in a parking garage, Deepthroat-style, where Brand complains that "baseball thinking is medieval." Correctly seeing the future in this Ivy League math whiz, Beane signs him up as a sidekick to help him combat the old, dark forces of traditional baseball scouting back in Oakland.
Among the one-note codgers set up as easy targets here are Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar with Miller for Capote, as manager Art Howe. This might be the most butch role Hoffman has played. He disappears into it convincingly but isn't given much of a character to work with. Howe's disinterest in even understanding Beane's goals doesn't seem realistic, and his sole motivation — a new contract — isn't enough.
Without a full investment in the battle of ideas at the heart of Lewis' book, the stakes here are pretty low: The A's again made it to the playoffs, but not the World Series. So Moneyball goes fishing around for more conventional dramatic payoffs to which general audiences can presumably relate and ends up grabbing onto exactly the things that people like Beane and Brand are dedicated to not overinflating: the flukishness of a long win streak and a "clutch" home run from a player — light-hitting converted catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) — valued for his less flashy on-base skills.
Here is a movie that is never sure what it wants to be. Soderbergh's rejected vision — which would have woven documentary aspects with staged scenes — seemed truer to the issues at play in Lewis' book, even if the author sets the stage for this half-measure adaptation by overemphasizing Beane's personal story.
Opening Friday, September 23rd