Moneyball’s source material, a non-fiction book of the same name, lends itself to a documentary far more easily than it does a feature film. The book’s focus is the introduction and success of statistical analysis in baseball operations via its implementation by Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane. While a book can focus on statistical innovation, moviemakers like to focus on characters, so it was an easy decision to make Moneyball (the film) about Billy Beane and this thing he did with numbers and baseball rather than about this thing about numbers and baseball that happened to be done by Billy Beane. It may sound semantic, but it’s not.
The role of Beane is played fairly effortlessly by Brad Pitt. In addition to being the focal point of the film, Pitt’s Beane is the vessel through which every aspect of the film runs. If you have a problem with him (the character or the actor (in Moneyball there is little distinction), you will probably not like this film. If you like him, you will probably like this film, love or understanding of baseball be damned. Similarly, at no point do you forget that you’re watching Brad Pitt onscreen. I have no idea what Billy Bean is like as a person, but after watching this film, I expect him to be exactly like Brad Pitt.
This is the Brad Pitt/Billy Beane show, through and through. With a winning turn from Jonah Hill playing Peter Brand, his statistical sidekick, and a somewhat puzzling Phillip Seymour Hoffman portrayal of Art Howe, the club manager and the closest thing to an adversary that appears in the film, both serve to divert the minimal amount of attention required away from Pitt. Hill through comic relief, and almost as an audience surrogate, and Hoffman as a very, very polite nemesis. Seriously, it feels as though Hoffman may have been chewing Tylenol PM throughout this entire shoot.
What’s most striking about Moneyball is that it appears to be a film almost entirely devoid of conflict, which makes it all the more marvelous that it manages to engage for as long as it does. There’s no shouting, no imminent danger, no romance. Even from a black-and-white baseball perspective, the film begins with expectations for the club lowered, then the rest of the film is spent watching the A’s and Beane try to meet expectations, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.
The baseball season clocks in at 162 games, which means a team is much more likely to win via a slow, steady grind than in a big game. That’s the essence on Moneyball (the concept). Moneyball (the film) reflects this philosophy, not relying on “the big game” or “do or die,” but rather tenacity and a little bit of faith as Beane braves criticism from several fronts. In short, he succeeds by avoiding being nibbled to death by ducks.
The most notable detraction from the film is the B-story of Billy Beane’s earlier playing days. It does little to prove relevant to the story at hand, instead serving as a human interest story that no one asked for. We get more than enough Pitt in contemporary story. There’s no reason to wade through his backstory in the past.
So if there’s little conflict, and extraneous backstory, why do we care about this film?
First off, Pitt is extremely likeable in this role. I have no idea if he is at all representative of the actual Beane in this regard, and I don’t care. He makes this journey enjoyable using his humor and charm, sometimes baring his teeth in a smile, but just as frequently a grimace.
Secondly, the dialogue, written in part by Aaron Sorkin, is funny. And the actors performing it are also funny. Pitt, a consistently underrated comedic actor (or possibly just a really funny guy), delivers the goods, as do Hill, Hoffman, an incredibly restrained Chris Pratt, and a scene-stealing performance as a New-Age stepdad from Spike Jonze. This is a funny film and would be branded a comedy if it wasn’t based on a bestselling non-fiction book about the marriage of math and baseball.
Moneyball fails to represent the book in that it invests us in the man and not the phenomenon, which keeps the reader from rooting terribly hard for the team. Instead, we’re rooting for Pitt. Not even to succeed, but just to keep doing stuff for us to watch. While that may insulate us from the original subject matter, it certainly makes for a far more interesting film than Moneyball (the book) should have been. I guess that’s a verbose way of saying that Brad Pitt has more than enough charisma to make this thing work.