“Nobody re-invents this game,” a baseball announcer smugly intones late in the deliciously entertaining Moneyball — and the same sentiment could represent the general approach to baseball movies.
Over the years, baseball has been a cinematic metaphor for lost innocence, daddy issues, the struggles of a lone warrior for redemption against impossible odds, the quest for equality, the indomitable American spirit, etc. For nearly 100 years, movies have been spitting out a series of variations on James Earl Jones’ swooning speech from Field of Dreams, even as the game itself has seen other sports trample it in true national-pastime popularity.
In adapting the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin are telling the story of people who decided to throw away the romanticized notion of baseball in favor of something pragmatic that actually worked for their circumstance. And it feels not at all coincidental that Moneyball itself takes a uniquely un-romanticized approach to making a baseball movie.
The story opens with the 2001 Major League Baseball playoffs, where the regular-season success of the Oakland A’s disintegrates into a disappointing first-round exit in the playoffs, followed by a confrontation with harsh economic reality. Unable to afford their own highly desirable free agents who flee for the wealthier Yankees and Red Sox, A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faces a seemingly impossible rebuilding task.
But a young Yale economics whiz named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) has embraced a new way of looking at players — one that’s all about what the statistics tell you — that veteran scouts and baseball insiders are convinced ignores every “intangible” they’ve come to believe about the game.
What follows could have been a standard-issue “underdog sports team” tale — and in some sense, that’s exactly what it is. As Beane and Brand butt heads with the entrenched notions of their brain-trust — including manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won his Oscar working with director Miller on Capote) — there are scenes focused on putting the rag-tag team of castoffs together. There are initial struggles getting the new system working. And there’s that time-honored element of any underdog sports movie worth the name, the winning-streak montage.
But Moneyball takes angles on these components that are at times completely original and at times just so well-executed that they feel completely original. There’s a terrific scene in which Beane visits the home of often-injured catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) to convince him to join the A’s as a first baseman. Beane and Brand’s first meeting with their skeptical scouts snaps with sharp dialogue and the tension of people whose livelihoods are threatened by this radical thinking. And when the winning-streak montage does roll around — spoiler alert: the A’s in 2002 won a league-record 20 consecutive games — Miller mixes it up by showing players drawing walks to emphasize the new focus on getting men on base. Even when Moneyball is employing rapid-fire inside-baseball patter — like a great moment with Beane working the phones at the league trade deadline — it feels less like a sports movie than like a smart workplace comedy/drama.
At the center of it all is Beane, and Pitt once again demonstrates why he should stick to roles that allow his natural comic charm to shine through. Moneyball’s flashbacks effectively establish the impact of Beane’s own days as a player — he was a “can’t-miss” prospect who did, in fact, miss — on his willingness to think differently. The subplot involving Beane’s relationship with his 12-year-old daughter feels like a forced bit of “humanizing” business, but Pitt’s performance generally sticks to the urgency of someone who thinks he can have an impact on the game from behind a desk that he never had on the field.
It’s fitting that Moneyball doesn’t exactly build to a conventional happy ending, because it’s about something more complicated than who wins one particular game. Radical improvements come when someone is willing to brush aside nostalgia and stare reality in the face. Here’s a baseball movie for people who don’t think they like baseball movies, because it has the good sense to do what the game itself generally has been afraid to do: set aside the appeal of continuing what’s comfortable, because someone has an innovative vision for what’s possible. Grade: B+
Opens wide Sept. 23.