Numbers Game, by Scott Nye
Sports movies are a dime a dozen, and in the currency of quality, originality, and artistry, are typically worth about that. As much as the tale of a scrappy band of misfits banding together to take down the athletic monarchy instantly appeals to our American origin, we know on some level that we’re being sold a bill not of rights, but of goods. The sports movie will typically explain away the extreme unlikelihood of the underdog’s victory through either unrealistic cleverness (thinking up a play that will just blow their minds) or just plain heart (I know I’ve often found victory in wanting something more).
Moneyball takes a different approach – a mathematical one. It tells the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, who in the early 21st century totally upended the way baseball teams are built. Along with his assistant, Peter Brandt (a pseudonym for Paul DePodesta, played here by Jonah Hill), he built a system that focused on small, specific skills that win games, as opposed to seeking out star players that were outside the price range of a team like the Athletics. They put a greater focus on getting on base than hitting home runs, so to speak. Anyway, that’s how the movie painted it – I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on baseball or the system.
The movie, at its core, is about an attitude that resists change, both in how it threatens one’s core beliefs about how the world operates, never mind the more immediate threat to one’s employment. Billy runs up against people in his own clubhouse and well outside of it, none of whom think his system has any merit, even when it starts to work. Needless to say, as a release from a major studio, it doesn’t exactly take this train of thought all the way, but it does make some interesting points along the way about how even in baseball (a subject about which it’s hard not to be romantic, as Billy says several times), people are still basically trying to keep their job.
You’re going to find yourself thinking an awful lot about Brad Pitt while watching Moneyball (which, just to be clear, is an activity in which you should take part). You can’t help it. He’s not simply the nominal star of the film; he is the star of the film because he completely owns it. Every scene is his to control, every moment an opportunity. There aren’t a lot of guys who can still do that Warren Beatty/Robert Redford/Paul Newman kind of thing, but Pitt can. It is hands-down the finest star performance I’ve seen all year, and anyone else who steps up from here on has some stiff competition.
The problem gets to be the sense that this was engineered to be. Pitt, as the film’s producer, and Bennett Miller, its director, did some good work casting this thing. Jonah Hill has emerged as a real, honest-to-God actor, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is, for my money, the finest of his generation. Beyond that, you have Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, and a number of fine character actors. None of them register at all. I’ve never seen Hoffman give anything but his all, but here he looks like I do most Fridays – just watching the time pass. His role, as Oakland’s manager, Art Howe, is a nothing one, just another roadblock for Billy, and he does nothing to elevate it.
And the thing is, this really could’ve been an amazing movie with that extra touch, those extra layers of stacking your deck with great actors playing interesting characters. Even though Billy gets into arguments constantly about his new tactic, screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zallian (I know, right?!), no strangers to well-crafted conversation, can’t pull a single compelling argument from the opposition. It’s bad enough that this is the kind of film in which the underdog defies expectations and emerges victorious. They could’ve at least given him some honest competition along the way; what’s there can mostly be chalked up to an expected rough start.
Don’t get me wrong, as it is, it’s a fine film, well worth seeing for Pitt, some entertaining (if one-sided) conversation, and a general good nature about the whole affair. Sorkin and Zallian’s words still dance, they just don’t land. They don’t pack much oomf, if you will. It’s not an out-of-the-park (I’m sorry, baseball analogies come naturally in the film reviewing racket), surefire killer, but it’s a breezy, enjoyable night at the movies.