‘Moneyball’ strays away from typical sports movies

By Danny Marchant

For many people, baseball isn’t just a game and it’s more than a pastime, too. It’s almost sacred, the kind of thing that you don’t mess around with. “Moneyball,” based on a true story, is about a man who messed around with it anyway.

The film stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s. When the film begins, the A’s have just lost the last game of their season. To make matters worse, they’ve lost three of their star players. Now, Beane has to rebuild his team, and he has to do it on a limited budget. As he puts it, “There are rich teams and there are poor teams … then there’s 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” Beane can’t get the kinds of players he wants for the money he has, and his scouts are picking the wrong players for the wrong reasons.

But when he meets a college graduate named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Beane learns that there’s more than one way to put together a ball team. Brand majored in economics at Yale (although his character is based on real-life baseball executive Paul DePodesta who went to Harvard) and evaluates players based solely on statistical data. For example, Brand explains that a pitcher named Chad Bradford costs almost nothing because scouts think he throws funny. Yet Brand shows that Bradford’s actual performance potentially makes him worth millions. This means Beane can put together a great team for less money. Their method flies in the face of a 100 years of baseball wisdom, putting Beane in the crosshairs of Major League Baseball (MLB).

The real strength of “Moneyball” is that it doesn’t trot out all the tired conventions of the sports movie. Since the movie focuses on Beane, who never watches the games, we hardly ever see the games. For a film about baseball, there is very little actual baseball played. Those expecting “The Natural” may be disappointed. However, the film’s departure from cliché makes “Moneyball” surprising rather than predictable. When the team expects Beane to make the customary, pre-game speech, he blows it. He delivers one of the least inspiring locker room speeches in sports movie history.
Beane may be out of his element as the inspirational leader, but he’s an extremely likable main character. To his credit, Brad Pitt plays Beane as a real person, not a real person being played by a movie star – though to his credit, Pitt almost always seems like a character actor stuck in a movie star’s body. He may look like Robert Redford, but he has a lot more in common with Strother Martin. In “Moneyball,” Pitt imbues Beane with an idiosyncratic charm, making audiences never quite sure whether he’s cocky or terrified. He grins when there’s nothing funny happening, almost as if he can’t believe a movie is revolving around him. It’s a great performance, and should earn Pitt a nomination come awards season.

But the biggest surprise of “Moneyball” is Hill’s performance. He comes out of the Judd Apatow factory of funny slackers and frat packers, cast against type as a quiet and reserved kid who doesn’t want to be the center of attention. Hill is excellent as Brand, delivering a lot of the movie’s best lines, and is also responsible for a lot of its funniest moments. It’s appropriate that the film’s two leads are actors that can’t be pigeon-holed. After all, this film is about mistaking something like a weird throw for a flaw, when it can actually turn out to be a real strength.

However, “Moneyball” isn’t without its own flaws. The film feels slow at points, especially in the middle act. There’s a long gap between Beane and Brand trying out their theory and the moment where it actually works. Viewers will begin to wonder if it was their theory or just luck that gets them their first win. The whole film relies on the premise that Beane was ahead of the curve while the rest of baseball sat on their hands. The film doesn’t completely deliver on that fact. In the end, one can’t be sure whether Billy was right, if MLB was right or perhaps both.

That being said, “Moneyball” is certainly one of the better movies of the year thus far. It has a great script and features stellar performances. It’s not your traditional sports movie, but it’s an entertaining film that won’t disappoint.

Danny Marchant can be reached at [email protected]