[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
When I heard that Moneyball was set to become a film, I didn't get it. It's a good book, and I'm a huge baseball fan, but as far as a narrative with wider cinematic appeal, I didn't see a there there. It's a story about a guy using statistics to exploit market inefficiencies, so…good luck with that?
It's not that it's uninteresting material per se, or difficult to follow, in the hands of the correct writer. (Like, say, Bill James, the godfather of statistical baseball analysis who's mentioned frequently in the film.) I love that stuff. But how do you get people who don't care about baseball to care about it on film, for two hours plus, using arithmetic -- and without alienating diamond nerds like myself who would sit there, arms folded, the Nit-Find-o-Tron 4000 ready to start picking?
I can't speak to what baseball atheists got out of it. I can name maybe two other people who got the same frisson of hilarity out of the casting of Chad Kreuter as Rick Peterson as I did. I know for a fact that nobody else snickered at "No bunting whatsoever," but I of course collect comments like that. But I'm pretty sure "Who's Fabio?" "He's that shortstop from Seattle"; the "I'm just saying, his girlfriend is a six, at best" sequence; and Billy Beane's ex-wife's new husband and his man-dals got laughs from other people, because I'm pretty sure Moneyball is a good movie qua movie, sharply observed and well acted across the board.
It's not perfect. The last half hour is draggy, and co-writer Aaron Sorkin couldn't resist one or two of his patented And Now My Proxy Will Lecture You In A Tone Of Self-Congratulation (Supplemental Oxygen Will Not Be Provided) speeches. But one of those speeches is about not getting sucked into the romance of baseball, which is good advice for baseball-movie screenwriters -- in a script that miraculously avoids 98 percent of the hero-journey mawkishness the sport tends to churn up. And Brad Pitt as Billy Beane is fantastic. The performance grew on me steadily, and by the time Beane snarked at Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, also very good and styled authentically, which is to say he looks like hammered hell), "Every time we talk, I'm reinvigorated by my love of the game," then did that herky ass-out-of-joint walk out of Howe's office, he had me. Ever since Ocean's 11, Pitt is usually having more fun than anybody else onscreen; here, part of that is Beane, but Pitt gets that a strong, thoughtful performance doesn't have to look like a Metamucil ad. He's fun to watch.
Every performance is good. I don't get Jonah Hill's Best Supporting nomination here, because we've seen the performance before, it seems like. But he won't win, so it's fine, and he and Pitt have flawless boss/underling bro chemistry onscreen. I want them to do another movie together. This movie probably isn't in the Best Picture discussion, which I'm okay with, but it exceeded expectations as far as splitting the difference for both fans and agnostics. A little too long, but the best possible iteration of the material.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com.