With any film adaptation, the question of the film’s reverence to the source material is inevitably raised. When the source material is as controversial as Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, this is doubly true. But this is a film review, not a comment on “Moneyball” or sabermetric analysis* so I’ll leave the criticisms of the original book, from both sides (the merits of sabermetrics, whether Billy Beane’s contributions are overstated, etc), alone.
The two films that come to mind when viewing Moneyball are The Blind Side (also adapted from a Lewis book) and The Social Network (also adapted from a Aaron Sorkin script).
In the same way that Michael Oher’s story breathes life into a book about the development of the left tackle, the colorful characters that made up the 2002 Oakland Athletics illuminate the most important development in a generation of baseball: the reliance on advanced statistics over business-as-usual scouting and intuition. While the film of The Blind Side focuses on the emotional melodrama of Michael Oher’s life, the film version of Moneyball is the opposite: those characters are largely absent from the film, with the notable exception of Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt). Instead, the film’s protagonist is GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), with a major supporting role for the fictional Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). And despite a few key scenes with Beane’s daughter, the film doesn’t rely on the smarmy, inspirational tone favored by The Blind Side.
Moneyball is both a baseball movie and an underdog story, yet it never is reduced to the cliches of those genres. For the most part, this is the story of what happens in the front office – not the field. Like The Social Network, the film is a dynamic take on what should be a bland topic, at least on paper. Even with Sorkin’s rewrite, unfortunately, the dialogue isn’t as snappy as that of The Social Network – and maybe that’s alright. These aren’t Harvard entrepreneurs. The lone Ivy grad character is Brand (the Yale economist who resembles the real life Paul DePodesta) and Hill’s dweebish portrayal is heavy on awkward, not assertive. Pitt’s Beane is as cocky and direct as his real life counterpart, with the fiery temper that doomed his professional career.
Still, the film feels incomplete, with many character arcs reduced to just a few points. Take Hatteberg, for example: the film shows his meeting with Beane, some awkward first base training, a little confidence building, and a winning home run. Manager Art Howe (an underutilized Philip Seymour Hoffman) opposes Beane’s new approach to baseball, has a few confrontations with him, and finally relents. Even Beane’s journey leaves the audience wanting: a few angry drives in his truck aren’t enough to fill in the blanks of his character. It’s as the script tries to do too much, leaving it disjointed.
But like the 2002 A’s, Moneyball is fun to watch. The relationship between Beane and Brand is never sentimentalized; Pitt and Hill have surprisingly good chemistry, which is reassuring since the pair have the most scenes in the film. Director Bennett Miller gives the film an almost documentary-like precision, relying on the romance of the sport film only where appropriate. I would have liked to see what Steven Soderbergh and Steve Zaillian (American Gangster, Gangs of New York, among others) would have done with the project, but the Miller-Sorkin pairing is more than capable of telling the story of Moneyball, scoring by stringing together a couple of singles but never hitting a home run.
Moneyball hits theaters on September 23.
*I’m a true believer when it comes to the importance of sabermetrics, even if Beane wasn’t the first one in baseball (or even in his own organization) to utilize such advanced statistics. A clip of Joe Morgan’s boneheaded dismissal of Beane and sabermetrics plays over a key scene in the film like nails on a chalkboard.