You can always tell a sports movie. They have a certain kind of mindset, and a checklist of problems, solutions, struggles, and successes. A lot of these items are a matter of heart, injected into the film to give it a personal perspective that purely watching sports doesn’t provide. In Moneyball, these are stories of struggles between David and Goliath, between wealth and family, between a man and himself. Despite the familiar, humanistic approach, Moneyball isn’t about the heart. It’s about money, business, and the inevitable struggle of a new idea. That’s what’s interesting about the film; in addition to the usual sports cliches, it adds a layer of urgency and interest through the business of baseball. Director Bennett Miller also uses his resources well, allowing Brad Pitt to take command and Jonah Hill to amuse.
First and foremost, Moneyball is a film about business. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the embattled General Manager of the Oakland A’s, upset and trapped by the loss of three of his star players. How can Oakland compete in the Major Leagues, with a tiny budget and teams like the Boston Red Sox poaching their best players? Enter Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale economics graduate and baseball fanatic. He’s devised a way, based on statistical analysis alone, to buy cheap, effective players, ones rejected by other teams for one reason or another. For example, the new A’s pitcher went unsigned because he “threw funny.” The building of this new team turns out to be quite a fascinating process. Obscure statistics and baseball terms are constantly referenced, but Moneyball does a good job of keeping us in the loop. We see Beane make tough decisions and upset people, notably the coach of the A’s, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and the scouts, all traditionalists of baseball and highly skeptical of this new and largely lifeless way of fielding a team. They seem to be threatened, but rightfully so, given that their jobs are being replaced by equations. In addition, the players are reduced down to numbers on a page, decimals and percentages. Everyone is affected by this change, and consequently swept up in the momentum of the idea, whether they like it or not. The urgency of the film isn’t caught up in personal relationships; rather, it’s determined by the question of whether or not this radical plan will work. When Moneyball defaults to personal relationships, as between Beane and his daughter, it comes off as ancillary to what’s really at stake. This reliance on old sports cliches muddles the vision of the film, and adds little more than a slight three-dimensionality to Brad Pitt’s character.
Despite the missteps, Brad Pitt is still the anchor of the film. He seems extremely at ease in the role of Billy Beane, the quick-talking General Manager of the Oakland A’s. Beane was a Major League flop, as we learn in flashbacks throughout the course of the film, and Pitt portrays this burden well. We see that both his business decisions and relationships are affected by ghosts of his past. It’s nuances such as this that make Beane interesting. Pitt embodies the role, and gives his character the depth it needs to drive the film forward.
Jonah Hill brings a needed charm and warmth to the film in the form of the young assistant Peter Brand. He’s often the source for laughs, of which there are plenty. Usually accustomed to playing comedic roles, Hill successfully adapts his talents to the more dramatic Moneyball. He doesn’t lose his sarcastic edge, but rather adds to it; Peter Brand is a naive youngster, in his “first job anywhere,” and this adds to his appeal, and the charisma of the film in general.
And what an agreeable film Moneyball is. There are no lives or miracles at stake. It’s simply the defense of an idea, of a business and a new way of doing things. Lives won’t be ruined by the outcome, at least not that we can see. It’s easy to root for Billy Beane and his radical methods, because even if he fails there’s not far to fall. Although the film plays it safe and falls prey to some typical sports movie characteristics, Moneyball does well in making the portrayal of new ideas the driving force of the movie. It invests us in an idea rather than a person, and this, along with a pair of enjoyable leading roles by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, give the film a heart, allowing Moneyball to break free from genre standards and successfully stand on its own two legs.