Silver Screen: Moneyball ***1/2
The first film adaptation of a Michael Lewis book, The Blind Side, wasn't exactly faithful to the source material. Sure, Lewis's nonfiction book focused heavily on the story of a football booster who helped an underprivileged student stabilize his home life and go on to NFL greatness, but it was equally about the strategic development of the left-tackle position and how its evolution came to change football. This brainy stats-and-strategy approach was dropped from the film, which became more about how awesome middle-class white women with disposable incomes can be.
Lewis is an economist with a particular interest in the tangible ideas that can be found crunching numbers. He's the Malcolm Gladwell of the spreadsheet, as evidenced in perhaps his most popular book since his astonishing Wall Street expose Liar's Poker, a book about the way dollars and cents drive America's pastime, Moneyball.
Moneyball is about a particular solution developed for baseball's class-warfare problem. As noted in the opening sequence of the film, in which the Oakland Athletics' general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) listens to a radio as his team is beaten by the Yankees, Oakland's $40-million budget for player salaries was eclipsed by New York by nearly $100 million. The Yankees, with their massive payroll, can essentially buy an allstar team. The odds are incredibly lopsided. (As the great comedian Doug Stanhope once noted, being a Yankees fan is like rooting for the house at a casino.)
Beane's unconventional solution to the problem comes in the form of a Yale graduate, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a character based significantly on Beane's real-life assistant general manager Paul DePodesta. Brand is a student of Bill James, a baseball nut and statistician who pioneered a system called sabermetrics in which players are recruited and teams built not based on traditional evaluations by scouts but crunching the numbers in the box scores to find the best players for the best value. The film version of Moneyball, which understandably cannot spend twenty minutes on a math lecture, boils the system down to this: Sign the cheapest players who have the best on-base percentages. During a few montage scenes, director Bennett Miller gives glimpses of that system’s more complex permutations, but the Cliff's Notes version works just fine.
Not everyone is so keen on the system Beane and Brand develop, especially not crusty coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He's unimpressed by the roster, which includes the aging David Justice, the hotheaded Jeremy Giambi, and Scott Hatteberg, a catcher considered washed up due to injuries. In the relatively few baseball scenes, they're presented as a kind of Bad News Bears squad. Though Miller maybe overdoes that a bit, they truly were plucky underdogs, which makes their eventual success all the more intriguing.
Spoiler alert for non-baseball fans: They don't win the World Series. But what transpires with the team is pretty remarkable, and it does make for a great story. With the lack of a gift-wrapped, ideal conclusion, Miller and ace screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian shift the conflict so it's not so much about whether or not the A's go all the way, but if Beane will be able to fully implement his system and if his and Brand's revolutionary approach will win acceptance.
Moneyball's greatest detriment is rather ironic. In the film, Beane repeatedly preaches about the overvaluation of superstar players and the benefits of a team constructed of equal parts working within a well-conceived system. The film fails to follow this game plan, however, and all the attention is shifted onto the movie's own superstar, Brad Pitt. He does an excellent job, of course, and Pitt’s temperamental Beane is a fascinating character. The movie's most interesting subplot concerns his own past, in which he himself was overpraised by scouts and failed to live up to his potential; using his own shortcomings as evidence of his theory, he's essentially arguing against the very ideas that brought him into Major League Baseball. It's good stuff, but it comes at the expense of essentially every other character in the film. Because Pitt is in it, the movie becomes the Billy Beane show, and we get utterly unnecessary subplots about his daughter and ex-wife (Robin Wright, in a single scene). Meanwhile, the semi-fictional Brand, the true mastermind here, remains totally unknown, and Hill's promising performance never really gets off the ground due to lack of screen time.
Good though it is, with some classic zingers via Aaron Sorkin and a strong cast, Moneyball could have been better had it practiced what it preached and allowed more contributions from the ensemble. But unlike the A's, who couldn't afford to hire superstars, Miller and company have Brad Pitt, which makes it a whole new ballgame.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.