To rephrase a question asked by the ad campaign for Stanley Kubrick’s censorship-burdened Lolita adaptation nearly 50 years ago, how did they ever make a movie out of Moneyball, the wonky business-of-baseball bestseller whose crusading hero is an executive whose team never reaches the World Series? In both cases, the snarky answer is the same (“They didn’t”), but though it lacks transgressive nymphets, Michael Lewis’s nonfiction chronicle of the statistical-analysis revolution in major-league front offices has properties generally judged inimical to the production of a Brad Pitt vehicle: a total absence of romance, plentiful industry-specific jargon, and worst of all, math. But true to Hollywood’s tireless efforts to fit square-peg material into roundish genre niches, this wavering, intermittently smart story of daring to think differently flattens its narrative into formula.
Pitt’s Billy Beane, like his real-world counterpart, was a highly touted outfielder whose career in the big leagues proved short and unspectacular, and as the Oakland Athletics’s general manager in 2002, he witnesses the exodus of stars from his small-market payroll to the fat-cat franchises of New York and Boston. To a degree likely greater than the living Beane, he’s haunted by his failure to live up to the stardom his “five-tool, complete package” reputation promised. (That his job is to field a winning A’s team isn’t enough; the script, fashioned in separate stages by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, makes his motivation personal in psychohistorical flashbacks suited to a superhero tent pole, with a Pitt lookalike as young Billy.) With a budget approximately a third of the overflowing Yankee coffers, and to the outrage and confusion of his wheezing old-school scouting staff, Beane rejects the pursuit of overpaid studs in favor of discounted players from “the Island of Misfit Toys”: undervalued human assets, judged old or physically unimpressive, who nevertheless have the aggregate skill to be a first-place team per the calculations of his Ivy League stat-genius assistant (suit-and-tied Jonah Hill, playing nebbishy foil to Pitt’s wheeler-dealer confidence).
With the A’s languishing in June with a losing record, the GM and his lieutenant stick to their philosophy despite ridicule from the local media and inflexible resistance from their surly field manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman, thanklessly cast as the prime villain of the middle act). Despite the broad strokes in developing this circle-the-wagons scenario (and that the movie manages to outstrip Lewis’s book in its cartoonish picture of the traditionalist scouts is amazing), director Bennett Miller does much better with the team in the crapper than when the A’s inevitably fulfill their projections and ascend to the division lead. Continuing to spin the plot as The Billy Beane Story, the filmmakers sometimes muff an intended tour de force, as when Beane manipulates three rival execs on the phone while prying away a needed relief pitcher; it’s scripted like comedy (with Hill’s stereotypical geek nervously supplying data tidbits), but the rhythm isn’t snappy enough to draw laughs. Worst of all, after on-field play by the cast has been kept to a discreet minimum, a laborious Big Game suspense sequence is dutifully presented—this is a baseball movie, after all—in which the only thing at stake is Oakland’s record-setting 20th-consecutive regular-season win. It’s there only to complete the Basic Screenwriting “arc” of the team’s damaged-goods first baseman (Chris Pratt). When Beane declares, in the very next scene, that the victory “meant nothing,” he’s essentially right, but the audience will suffer from tonal whiplash.
Though Pitt’s energetic performance is solid, and he’s persuasive at playing good and bad cop with the ballplayers, Moneyball continues its bet-hedging on what it alleges to be about with “humanizing” scenes between Beane and his adoring, guitar-playing tween daughter (Kerris Dorsey), and a superfluous cameo by Robin Wright as Billy’s ex-wife. It’s all musty window dressing, but the powers that be who vetoed an earlier semi-documentary version of the film proposed by Steven Soderbergh no doubt feared a project set entirely within the universe of baseball as box-office poison. (Beane’s most quoted line from the book, the self-exculpatory and accurate “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” no doubt would confuse non-fans, but it’s been cut, which could be the most regrettable page-to-screen omission since Merchant Ivory left “Connect, only connect” out of Howards End.)
Aficionados of the sport finally get a juicy, Sorkin-sounding scene in the final minutes when the Red Sox owner (a sublime Arliss Howard), attempting to lure Billy from Oakland, reassures him in the wake of another media pile-on that “the first man through the door always gets bloodied.” Whether this strange fusion of cornball and game-behind-the-game history will be embraced outside the circle of diamond fanatics is questionable, but as in Lewis’s book, the dominant image of Billy Beane is a brooding man driving aimlessly through the Bay Area night because he’s too nervous, or neurotic, to actually watch his team’s games. And did we really need Brad Pitt for that?