Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 133 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Age Appropriate for: 14+. The film’s rating is mainly for cursing, gruff locker room talk and some discussion of heavy drinking and strip clubs; there’s a goofy male striptease but no actual nudity. For sports fans of any teen age or older, the film is basically perfect.
‘Moneyball’ is a story of dry statistics with an unflinchingly feeling heart, the kind of fast-talking look into an insiders’ world that invites all of us to feel a little smarter, a little more human, after a couple of hours. It’s a wildly successful smack out of the typical Hollywood park.
By Roxana Hadadi
A movie about numbers, math equations and payrolls? Yuck.
The simplest facts of “Moneyball,” a movie about sabermetrics, a method of analyzing baseball through various statistics, initially seem frustratingly, woefully boring — just like the sport itself. But dig deeper. Look harder. The romance of baseball, its glimmering moments of perfection, aren’t just owned by big teams with fat coffers. If “Moneyball” is an underdog story, it’s not just about rich organizations vs. poor ones;
it’s about the information revolution sweeping everyone and everything into its rushing depths, it’s about evolution, it’s about survival. “Moneyball” is about the best characteristics we consider American, and the worst. “Moneyball” is about us.
Last year’s “The Social Network” was like this, too: A movie about something as seemingly yawn-worthy as the invention of Facebook actually turned out to be a rapidly paced investigation of the jealousies and ambitions available within the American psyche and how they can lead either to our great downfall or our great success, or sometimes both at the same time. It’s all about money, isn’t it? About making it, about manipulating it, about how inexplicably and inevitably it’s tied into our sense of self.
“Moneyball” is about it too, of course: When your opponent has so many more resources than you do, and you’re both expected to bring home the same victories, how do you survive against the sickeningly overwhelming competition? “Adapt or die,” Brad Pitt frankly proclaims in “Moneyball,” and that’s the simplest truth of this frankly unforgettable film. If you’re failing, if there are no options, wouldn’t you consider something that suddenly presents itself to you, even if it’s maligned? Even if it’s doubted? Wouldn’t you give that something a chance?
And so we’re thrust into the insider-baseball world of “Moneyball,” based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, who investigated how sabermetrics transformed the way general manager Billy Beane runs the Oakland Athletics. The film begins with a loss: After the 2001 American League Division Series, which the Athletics (a payroll of $40 million) lose to the New York Yankees (a payroll of $115 million), Beane (Pitt) is suddenly faced with a rebuilding year, as three of his star players — including Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi — are scooped up by wealthier teams as soon they become free agents at the end of the postseason. The Athletics don’t have enough money to keep them, and Beane knows he can’t lure bona fide baseball stars to the team to replace them. He walks into meetings with other general managers, asking for player swaps and hoping for some breaks, only to be derided for the Athletics’ losses. It stings.
Beane hates losing more than he likes winning, he says, and it’s clear from flashbacks to his years as a player — when he walked away from a scholarship to Stanford University to play with the Mets, only to struggle with the transition to big-time baseball and eventually sputter out, with no concrete success to show for his fantastic potential — why he’s ready to leave the old system of scouting behind. When he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate with a degree in economics who is advising another team about what players to sign and let go, Beane wants to know what’s so special about the chubby kid in cheap suits, why he holds so much power. He scoops Brand up and brings him to Oakland, where Brand’s belief in sabermetrics — or analyzing players based on other statistics besides their batting average, such as how often they get on base — gives Beane an idea. Make up a team of misfit toys, he decides, players who have been overlooked, ignored or written off by other organizations, and give them the chance to finally do something and prove themselves. True opportunity.
To Beane and Brand, the idea is great; the numbers provided answers, specific figures of how many games the Athletics need to win to cement a postseason berth, and they’re sticking with them. To Beane’s scouts, who are used to judging players’ potential based on the prettiness of their girlfriends and the arc of their swing, it’s practically team suicide. To the Athletics’ manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), it’s flat-out unintelligible; he refuses to organize the players as Beane and Brand want, affirming a yawning schism between the three. And to baseball fans, when the Athletics start off losing, it’s a slap in the face — and when they start winning, it’s a lightning bolt of validation that no one could have expected. Well, expect Beane and Brand, of course.
“Moneyball” is based on things that really happened, so when director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian (who wrote “Schindler’s List” and “Gangs of New York”) and Aaron Sorkin (who wrote “The Social Network”) stick to the story, it’s a testament to how good the reality is that there’s not much obvious tweaking. The biggest difference is the character of Brand, who didn’t exist but is based on Paul DePodesta, Beane’s real-life former assistant general manager who is now vice president of development and scouting for the New York Mets.
Nevertheless, Hill is spot-on fantastic, crafting a mostly expressionless guy based in a reality created by numbers who still sleeps under a poster of Plato and goes to every Athletics game, every one, to look over his crazy experiment with a tightly wound sense of pride — and of what’s at stake. Hill is usually a goofy miscreant in his films, like “Get Him to the Greek,” but his ability to temper that absurdity is the key here: In scenes with Pitt, where the two are frantically making calls to other teams to cement player switches, he’s an even-keeled force; when he shows emotion, it matters.
But no one matters more in “Moneyball” than Pitt, who brings slightly modified versions of his “Inglourious Basterds” drawl and his “The Tree of Life” authoritarianism to his version of Beane. He believes he’s so jinxed that he refuses to watch the games in the stadium, but he’s simultaneously a loving father to his daughter from a failed marriage, who worries openly for her father’s job when things with the team don’t seem to be going right. He coaches Brand; he spars with dissenters; he is honest with players who maybe never have been treated with such truth; he’s both open about his vices (chewing tobacco) and private about his fears (seen when he aimlessly drives around in his pickup truck, trying to grapple with the gravity of his experiment). Beane is a flawed man — more than a little bit desperate — but Pitt infuses him with a collectedness that both belies Pitt’s acting mastery and suggests how, in real life, Beane must eventually have earned confidence from others involved in the game. He just must have.
And “Moneyball” gets its approval and confidence from us, too, even if you’re not a baseball fan or fractions freak you out. Sometimes, it’s more than a game — and “Moneyball” exquisitely proves how that old adage can wondrously, unbelievably come true.