Near the end of Moneyball, I realized that I hadn’t scribbled down many notes about the film. This is perhaps a testament to how captivating the story is, or at least the way screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian and director Bennett Miller tell it. But my lack of active engagement is also fitting to the apparent message of the movie, which tells us to just enjoy the show.
Well, literally this is the message of a 2008 Lenka song that’s covered in the movie by child actress Kerris Dorsey, who plays the 12-year-old daughter of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). It’s a pretty prominent tune -- I think the girl is actually supposed to have penned it herself -- and also much of the movie is intently straightforward. Even metaphors are directly stated as being such.
The plot initially suggests otherwise, however. Beane is the general manager of the Oakland A’s and his team has not only lost the first round of the 2001 American League playoffs but then it also loses its best players (Damon, Giambi, Isringhausen) to other teams with bigger checkbooks. He can’t just enjoy the show, because the show is his job and he has to help it make money. Also, he doesn’t watch the game anyway.
Beane quickly meets a young economist fresh out of Yale named Peter Brand (a fictionalized version of Paul DePodesta, played by Jonah Hill), who believes in sabermetrics, the statistical approach to player value developed by Bill James, and hires him to run data on bargain basement hopefuls. They build up a ragtag, underdog roster not unlike a real-life (yet fairly fictionalized) and less comical version of the Cleveland Indians portrayed in Major League, complete with a wild-armed pitcher.
For most of the film, though, it's not necessarily about whether the A’s win or lose. The conflict is between Beane and those in both his organization and the rest of the baseball-following world. He fights with his head scout, Grady Fuson (minor league pitcher-turned-baseball movie regular Ken Medlock). He clashes with the players, particularly spoiled new recruit David Justice (Stephen Bishop). And he especially has trouble with team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to figuratively play ball, consistently benching Beane hopeful Scott Hatteberg (portrayed adorably insecure by Chris Pratt).
To an extent the film, which is based on Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” is in league with Sorkin’s previous work, The Social Network. It’s nerds versus jocks, brains versus bank, algorithms versus experience. Revolutionary thinking is always a challenge, yet not inevitably a dramatic one, it seems. While there are arguments and some bats thrown about, Moneyball is very lacking in tension and crisis.
Part of this is that so many characters are without major league problems or complicated relationships. Beane gets along a little too perfectly with his daughter (who is a little too perfect at the singer-songwriter thing for her age), and his ex-wife (Robin Wright), and is an impossibly terrific boss and mentor to Brand. He’s in a perfect starting position where he’s met with certain walls and strife but ultimately is always on top and advantaged.
And he gets to speak with such brilliantly flowery and witty dialogue courtesy of Sorkin, who here should be recognized for the sort of rapid and subtle use of allusion and clever wordplay that writers like Diablo Cody wish they could not only write but, unlike Sorkin, isolate and draw self-satisfying focus on. It's quite apt for a film about the power of the sum over sole big numbers, or the strength of teams over star players. Sorkin's lines aren’t exactly realistic but sound natural and believable in this fantastical motion picture world, coming out of the mouths of these incredibly positive motion picture people.
Moneyball is a feel good movie of the highest order, upbeat and positive, more of a really well done yet piece-of-cake puff profile than a great film. But I do think it’s mostly hopeful and happy for viewers who are only casual fans of baseball, like myself, who do not follow stats and rankings and enjoy a single game on its own now and again (just enjoy the show).
Those who don’t care about the sport at all will probably not care about Beane’s story, even though it is easily digestible and, as is the case with any baseball story, it can function as a relatable metaphor for many other things (except perhaps something truly substantial). And really huge fans may find it a bit too light and old hat by now. And the suggestion that it’s just a game could certainly be disagreed with.