Review: Moneyball (2011)

Director: Bennett Miller

****

Moneyball should be a cloying sappy mess. It’s based on a true story about an underdog baseball team who worked against an established system to make history. It’s a credit to all involved, then, that Moneyball is a riveting and intelligent drama, with professionalism etched all over it. Play ball!

The most unbelievable thing about so-called ‘unbelievable’ true stories is the sheer number of them that actually occur. The 20-game winning streak that the Oakland Athletics achieved in 2002 was unprecedented but it was grounded in the tangible reality of statistics. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the Athletics’ general manager, is determined to get a win after losing to the Yankees in the 2001 postseason. His determination is inflamed by the departure of three major players from the Athletics, and so he goes on a hunt to find replacements from other teams. He meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an advisor to the Cleveland Indians, and hires him as an assistant manager after Brand reveals his statistical theories. This sounds like a snore-fest, but screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian (together at last!) keep the facts straight and relevant. Beane adapts Brand’s advice; don’t buy players, buy wins! By putting the right players in the right places on the diamond, they can play to their strengths and start winning games. The team’s scouts believe the scheme to be madness, as does coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) when the first number of games are lost. With his career on the line, Beane does that underdog thing and sticks in his heels and sees the plan through, and victories start coming the Athletics’ way. There’s not a lot new in this against-the-odds tale, so the script and Capote director Bennett Miller emphasize the odds, and how the team do their best to work against them. As Beane tells his scouts, “we’re card counters at the casino”; with Brand’s plan, Beane regains his confidence both at work and in his personal life, as shown in his relationship with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) and ex-wife (Robin Wright). The effectiveness of Brand’s plan culminates in a string of victories, which sees the Athletics aiming for a record. The plucky underdogs are transformed, as always, from scrappy to happy.

It’s strange to think of Brad Pitt as an underdog, but his Beane is neither too cocky nor over-morose, making for a likeable everyman working a dream job. Hill does well in a dramatic role, though Brand (a composite of a number of real assistants Beane had) often feels just like the tool by which Beane gets to where he needs to go. It might deceive itself otherwise, but Moneyball is an underdog story; it just happens to be a very smart one, with confident direction and witty, insightful writing. Think of it as Bull Durham With A College Degree. It’s not quite a home run, but even the most baseball-averse should be won over by Moneyball.

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