Every now and then while watching Moneyball, two words would pop into my mind: “Stop spitting!” Brad Pitt spits into a paper cup, players spit on the field – less than in real baseball, but enough.
The distraction mattered because otherwise this sophisticated movie about putting together a winning team is hugely entertaining, even for someone who cares next to nothing about the slo-mo game and who finds no charm in all that scratching and sniffing on the field.
The best movies about baseball often work that way, with a fresh angle that isn’t really about sports. One of the funniest scenes in Bull Durham mocks the standard player’s line to the press: I’m just here to help the ball club. Moneyball goes further and tosses those cliches aside to become a story about old vs. new attitudes, featuring an unlikely but fantastic buddy team.
Pitt (with charm, ease and his most Redford-like smile) plays the real-life Billy Beane, general manager of the low-rent Oakland A’s. Jonah Hill is the smart kid he hires, Peter Brand, a Yale economics major who strategizes how to compete with richer teams.
Since they can’t afford multi-million dollar contracts, they put together a composite of lesser ones, a kind of reverse-monster Frankenstein: a good arm here, a good pair of legs there, not necessarily on the same body. Less gut instinct, more business savvy – an idea that shatters the sports cliches everyone grew up with.
It’s easy to see that they’ll turn the team around, and not only because the film is based on a real story and on Michael Lewis’s best-seller (the book every sports fan in the world got multiple copies of as birthday presents). What grabs you is who these guys are and how they make that happen.
Pitt’s character may be the hero but we also see his terrible management style, blunt and impatient with the old-fogy scouts. The flashbacks to Beane’s own failed career as a player are meant to add depth, but don’t. What does make him touchingly human is his relationship with his 12-year-old daughter (beautifully played by Kerris Dorsey). They have lovely scenes together: she sings and he looks on in proud wonder, he tells her not to worry about him.
Pitt’s performance is so natural, he almost masks the fact that, as written, the character is pretty slight. (It he gets an Oscar nomination, it will be because of his star presence, not because this is an awards-ready role, but that’s how awards go.)
It is a little odd that Billy’s ex-wife is played by Robin Wright, and her new husband by Spike Jonze, in a gleefully absurd one-scene role. None of these three seem to fit together.
When we first see Hill, it’s easy to wonder what he’s doing here. That guy from the Judd Apatow movies? But he’s amazingly good, with a light, perfectly timed comic touch that’s just what the film needs. The slimmed-down Hill doing the talk-show circuit today doesn’t look much like his Moneyball character anymore, but the schlubby-Pete look works for someone who never had a shot at playing but substitutes brain power.
The screenplay is by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, and without comparing scripts it’s impossible to say who contributed what. (Zaillian wrote a version when Steven Soderbergh was on the project; Sorkin came along for this version, directed by Bennett Miller). But Moneyball certainly has the feel of other Sorkin works, including his great television series Sports Night, which was not about sports but about a sports TV network. And just as The West Wing reveled in the process of politics, Moneyball finds thrills in the process of Billy and Pete's creation.
Miller brings in his Capote star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the A’s cranky, resistant manager. And as in Capote, Miller’s style is so smooth and unobtrusive you may not notice at first how rich it is, how many layers of character and plot he allows us to see in a glance.
So, apart from the fact that there’s too much spitting in baseball, Moneyball is a total delight – not a word I’d usually put in the same sentence with any sport.