Based on a true story, Moneyball tells the tale of the Oakland A’s, a major league baseball team, and their general manager, Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt. The A’s have been languishing in the lower reaches of the league and lose most of their marquee players to teams with bigger budgets. In order to compete with these teams, Beane takes the maverick approach of ‘sabermetics’, using statistics to assemble a budget team that have the combined strength to compete with teams like the New York Mets. Beane is helped by Jonah Hill’s assistant general manager, Peter Brand, an economics graduate and believer in the sabermetrics method. Along the way they meet staunch resistance to their methods from the traditional backroom staff, who rank players using phrases such as “he gives good face” and “he has a good swing”, and of course the team coach, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
Pitt gives an admirable performance as Billy Beane, failed major league player turned general manager. We are treated to flashbacks of the beginning of his career throughout the movie, which give an insight into his thought process. He was picked up as a teenager and gave up a chance to go to university in order to play in the Major League. The bitterness is apparent and it obviously colours his desire to move baseball away from traditional methods, as he feels he was a victim of that system. His relationship with Jonah Hill’s Brand is the central dynamic of the movie, but it never really goes anywhere. They work well together on screen and there are a few good moments of humour between them, which serve to lighten a movie which is laden with technical scenes, a lot of which will go over the heads of audiences outside the US.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with this movie, and the pyrenneal problem of movies about American sports; they have a limited audience. Movies like Jerry Maguire and the outstanding Friday Night Lights work because they are character driven dramas that just happen to involve these sports, whereas Moneyball is a movie about a scientific method of evaluating player performances, with the screenwriters desperately trying to tack on some emotion, like Beane’s relationship with his daughter, to fill in the gaping holes and try to keep people interested.
This is why the movie falls away so badly at the end . The system gets proven, the team go on the greatest winning streak in the history of baseball, hurrah! We then get another twenty minutes of Beane deciding whether or not he’ll take a new job with the Boston Red Sox and not get to see his daughter so often. It just doesn’t work. The central character in the movie is baseball, and it had it’s climax, we’re just not that interested in what Beane does after that.
Also worth noting is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character, team coach Art Howe. It’s hard to understand why Hoffman chose the role; he speaks in about 4 scenes in the entire movie and spends the rest of the time sulking around the screen like he’s really, really upset that someone has made him wear a tight-fitting baseball uniform. I get that his name is a draw for movie-goers, but his performance certainly doesn’t warrant equal billing with Jonah Hill. He’s more like one of those ‘special guest stars’ you’d notice in the credits of an episode of ‘Murder She Wrote’.
Moneyball is an enjoyable drama with fine performances but very little emotional engagement. If you’re a fan of sports movies you’ll enjoy it for that reason, but I struggle to see a huge audience for it outside the US.