"Moneyball" is a baseball movie that is, of course, being promoted as more than just another baseball movie. Why the inferiority complex? As "Bull Durham" and "The Bad News Bears" and many other films have already demonstrated, baseball movies are just fine being about just baseball.
Maybe the motivation behind all this "more than baseball" stuff is that baseball movies, except in Japan and Latin America, are not big sellers overseas, where Hollywood films often make half their money. Better not to be typecast.
On the other hand, Brad Pitt, who stars in "Moneyball" as real-life Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, is a global movie star. He is also, on occasion, an excellent actor, and this is one of those occasions. He provides ballast and a swaggering humor to a movie that, too often, strives to be "The Social Network" of baseball movies.
No surprise there, since that film's producer, Scott Rudin, and screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, are also on board for this one. (The coscreenwriter is Steven Zaillian.) But the overrated "The Social Network" was about a cultural game changer. "Moneyball," based on the eponymous nonfiction bestseller by Michael Lewis, is about something lesser. Lewis's book is subtitled "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," and that aptly describes the film. How did a small-market team like the 2002 Oakland A's stay competitive with the lavishly moneyed likes of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox?
The answer was to remake the game. Instead of using seasoned scouts and coaches to seek out promising ballplayers using traditional methods and hunches, Beane had a "better" idea. Utilizing the system of resident spreadsheet nerd and recent Yale economics graduate Peter Brand (a composite character played by Jonah Hill), he single-mindedly went after low-priced, overlooked players with a high on-base plus slugging percentage, or OPS. These are the players who actually score runs.
Director Bennett Miller, whose feature debut was the excellent "Capote," knows that a tangle of flow charts and on-base statistics isn't going to cut it with audiences, even though that tangle is central to Beane's make-over of the game. Miller keeps the wonk factor to a blessed minimum. Some of the film's funniest moments play against the wonkiness, as when Peter, faced with a roomful of leathery, cynical scouts, calmly cites his stats while managing to look both imperious and mortified.
At the same time, Miller must also realize that "Moneyball," at least superficially, deromanticizes the game by reducing its successes to mundane number crunching. This is why he plays up Beane as a maverick, a glorious eccentric, even though what Beane is doing is, by ordinary standards, anathema to the spirit of baseball. (Beane's counterpart is the A's grizzled manager, Art Howe, wonderfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.) In place of the traditional sentimentalism about the glory of the game, Miller substitutes a dubious alternative scenario in which Beane's hard-earned successes are played down. That's how "Moneyball" works "heart" into a movie about the inutility of making front office decisions with your heart instead of your head.
The 2002 Oakland A's may not have won the division pennant or the World Series, but they came pretty close. They had a phenomenal run. The filmmakers, although they pay lip service to the competition-free values of gamesmanship, make it seem as if winning it all and winning nothing are life's only two options. They buy all too eagerly into Beane's funk at not being champ.
They also buy a bit too dearly into the whole OPS methodology. The A's, after all, had only the seventh-highest major league OPS percentage in 2002, and the third highest in their division. (The film neglects to mention this.) Obviously other factors were at work in their success. And, you may have noticed, heavily bankrolled teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox aren't exactly hurting in the wins columns these days.
"Moneyball" presents a misleading story line in order to prop up Billy Beane as some kind of would-be miracle worker antihero. In truth, he's just another tobacco-chewing go-getter trying to make sense of a game that, thankfully, has never quite made sense. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some strong language.)