“Moneyball”: Brad Pitt’s wonk-friendly Oscar contender

A baseball bestseller becomes a lovable star vehicle about a classic American underdog -- and somehow it works

Topics: Moneyball, Baseball, Our Picks, Movies, Sports, The Social Network,

"Moneyball": Brad Pitt's wonk-friendly Oscar contenderBrad Pitt and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball"

I’m damned if I understand how a nonfiction book that’s largely a wonky study of systems and information, and a story about the clash between empirical data and subjective wisdom, became an Oscar-friendly star vehicle for Brad Pitt. But that’s exactly what happened with the long-delayed and troubled film production of “Moneyball,” which has to be described as an example of what Hollywood does best. Baseball fans and statistics buffs will no doubt have numerous nits to pick with this lovingly crafted underdog fable from director Bennett Miller (his first film since the terrific “Capote”), which exists at several removes from journalist Michael Lewis’ acclaimed bestseller. (The screenplay has been through numerous iterations, and a pair of heavyweights, Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, share the official credit.) But what we get in the end is a richly detailed and enjoyable American yarn, built around a warm and expansive performance by Pitt as Billy Beane, revolutionary general manager of the Oakland Athletics.

Indeed, while I’d still argue that this fall’s crop of Oscar contenders looks a little tepid in cinematic terms, the array of potential star power and collective testosterone in the best-actor category surely has the Academy’s broadcast producers and promoters drooling. It seems plausible and even likely that Pitt, George Clooney (for “The Descendants”) and Ryan Gosling (conceivably for “Drive” but more likely for “The Ides of March”) will all be nominated, perhaps an unprecedented Leading Man-apalooza. If Pitt’s role in “Moneyball” is more of a conventional star turn than his career-shifting performance as the stern 1950s father in “The Tree of Life” (for which he emphatically deserves awards but won’t win any), it’s still terrific. He’s on-screen in almost every scene, often filling it up in extreme close-up, and captures the bluff, buff and shrewd Beane, a washed-up jock who embraced an unorthodox statistical philosophy through sheer necessity, with great wit and physicality. (Let me throw in that “Moneyball” is a delirious study of bad early-2000s guy fashions and haircuts, which may elude some of the audience but is definitely conscious.)

Let me hasten to assure you that “Moneyball” isn’t all that much of a baseball movie, although fans of the national pastime will of course rush to see it. It’s a prime Brad Pitt movie — arguably the prime Brad Pitt movie — and an American fable about a battered but lovable divorced dad who defies conventional wisdom and beats the odds. Then it’s a somewhat watered-down retelling of Lewis’ story about how math geeks upended an American institution, and only then is it a sports flick (and probably the most detailed portrait of life behind the scenes in Major League Baseball ever put on-screen). It’s time for me to confess that I’m in a highly unusual position re “Moneyball,” which cannot help but color my reaction. I’m a lifelong fan of Beane’s bedraggled, low-budget team, the A’s, and while I had to follow their remarkable 2002 season, which is chronicled here, from 3,000 miles away, it left an enduring impression. That also means that I view the events of “Moneyball” through a rueful prism, since Beane and the team have struggled through some lean years since the explosive drama of ’02. The rest of baseball has long since caught up to the A’s, who’ve had several losing seasons in a row (including this one), play in a decrepit stadium before a declining fan base, and may not survive in Oakland much longer.

None of that should affect how ordinary moviegoers react to “Moneyball” in the slightest. Here’s what you need to know, at least as it appears on the big screen: After losing a heartbreaking five-game playoff series to the big-budget New York Yankees in 2001, the A’s faced implosion. Three of their biggest stars were defecting to richer Eastern teams, and Beane’s skinflint team owner, Steve Schott (played by Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, one of several odd cameos in the film), refuses to increase the team’s $39 million budget, about one-third what the Yankees spend. In the course of trying to hustle up some affordable warm bodies to play for his team, Beane runs into a supremely unathletic Yale economics grad named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, proving he can handle a modulated dramatic role), who is buried deep in the Cleveland Indians front office. Brand tells Beane that there’s an “epidemic failure” in baseball to understand the true nature of the game, and that he knows how to use “sabermetric” data to build a cheap team that will be even better than last year’s pricier version.

All of this is reasonably accurate, but if you’re a “Moneyball” reader who already knows what OBP and OPS stand for, you may feel slightly frustrated by the lack of detail, and you’ll realize that Peter Brand is a composite character largely based on Beane’s real-life assistant, Paul DePodesta (later the G.M. of the Los Angeles Dodgers and now a vice president of the New York Mets). In fairness, though, Miller does a nice job of dramatizing the opening shots in the ideological civil war that consumes baseball to this day. In meetings with Oakland’s scouting staff — leathery old guys who’ve spent their lives standing on sun-baked fields in the American outback, watching teenagers throw, catch and hit baseballs — Beane and Brand face a mixture of disbelief, contempt and outright rebellion.

Miller also makes it clear that the surprising success of the 2002 A’s was only partly a result of Brand/DePodesta’s innovative statistical research, which enshrined on-base percentage, slugging percentage and other newfangled stats as being far more relevant to winning than “baseball-card” numbers like batting average or RBIs. Beane had to batter his gruff, combative field manager, Art Howe (wonderfully played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), into compliance, and then saw Howe get much of the credit for the team’s record-setting winning streak. Some of the team’s discount-store pickups, like unorthodox relief pitcher Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) and Boston Red Sox castoff Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) paid off in spectacular fashion, but Beane also relied on old-school instincts at times, as when he traded away future star Carlos Peña (Adrian Bellani) and party-boy Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo), despite their unquestioned statistical value.

If you’re not a baseball fan, you probably don’t know how the story of the 2002 A’s developed on the field, or how it ended, so let’s finesse that point by saying that they shocked everybody else in the game — Beane’s roster of nobodies was widely mocked when the season began, and the team started very poorly — but the thrilling ride ended with mixed results. “Moneyball” will inevitably be compared to “The Social Network,” and they’re undeniably both long, leisurely, detail-rich stories of Information Age revolutions with long-lasting effects. But that isn’t really fair to either movie; “Moneyball” is meant as a classic tale of Podunk heroism, far closer in spirit to, say, “Hoosiers” than to the ambivalent, Gatsby-hued saga of “Social Network.” I also wouldn’t argue that “Moneyball,” enjoyable as it is, belongs in the same class. At 133 minutes, it’s a fair piece too long, and I mourn for the wonkier docudrama approach we might have seen in the aborted Steven Soderbergh version. But it’s an honorably crafted movie-star spectacle with a generous spirit and enormous popular appeal, and it happens to be about my team’s most extraordinary season. You can’t expect me to resist. 

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>