The starring role in MONEYBALL is not a showy one. Rather it requires of the actor playing it to posses a consummate skill in inhabiting a character rather than merely playing one. Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s must be all things to all people, low-key and cool as he is glad-handing with a hail-fellow-well-met air that will meet their expectations, be it to be a pillar of strength to his fretful daughter and equally fretful team owner, displaying a confident swagger with the GMs with whom he wheels and deals over player trades, or playing hardball with a broad smile and deceptively empathetic demeanor with the team’s disapproving manager (Phillip Seymour Hoffman with a paunch that ripples with condescending dyspepsia). The actor playing Beane must be all these things while at the same time being to the audience an ex-ballplayer facing his last chance to stay in the big league with a desperation that has led not to anguish, but instead to a paradigm-busting way of rethinking the entire sport of baseball. Brad Pitt is magnificent pulling it off.
Based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, MONEYBALL recounts the 2002 Oakland A’s baseball season that changed everything. After losing the 2001 season to the New York Yankees, and their bottomless well of funds with which to lure the best players, Beane finds himself in a hopeless quest for players that he can afford and that also appeal to his team of scouts and their decades of experience. During his quest, he encounters a quiet, bespectacled, egg-shaped, and retiring oddball with a radical algorithm that could change not only Oakland’s fortunes, but alsothat of the whole business of baseball. Whispered advice is taken seriously. And a fateful collaboration is born.
The oddball is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), fresh out of Yale with a degree in economics, and his method takes the instinct and the hunches out of picking players. The formula has the brilliance of simplicity: picking a team that can deliver base hits rather than spend big money on star players. Find the players who, collectively, are the best at getting on base, and your team can’t lose. The revolutionary part is that the statistics dont pick those stars with their attendant high price tag. They pick the misfits, a pitcher who throws funny; a batter who seems to be past his prime. As deftly explicated with an briskly written script, Brand’s method makes infinitely more sense than a scout rejecting a player because his girlfriend is ugly, the which connotes a lack of confidence.
In telling the story, the film is careful in making the point of why Beane is so receptive to this idea with flashbacks to his own failed major league career. A hot prospect with the confidence of scouts telling him that he is destined for baseball stardom, the reality was much different. By the time Beane asks Brand if he would have picked him in the first-round, Brand’s answer is exactly what Beane wants to hear, and the audience knows why. It bonds the two and makes this the story of two misfits, the golden boy with the talent that everyone noticed and were let down by, and the schlub with the idea that is right, but who can’t get taken seriously. Until Beane.
Knowing how the 2002 season progressed does nothing to diminish the amount of suspense generated by the story. Bennett Miller is a master of quiet, wrenching drama, and Pitt is a superb vehicle for it. Even the outbursts of tossed furniture, trashed phones, and junk food gulped in two massive bites, have a quality of being only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of Beane’s turmoil. Hill has a role that allows for more personal growth, with nuance clues in dress and behavior, but for all the social awkwardness, he also harbors an absolute confidence in the system he has devised that gives Pitt the proper substance to which he can pin Beane’s hopes.
MONEYBALL shows excellent use of exposition for those not versed in the religion of baseball, integrating it into the story, and making use of the disgusted reactions of people who think they know better. It is also an initiation into the poetry of playing the game, and the hard, cold facts of how a team makes it out onto the field. For all the strum und drang off the field, once the games begin on screen, the recreations of the unfathomable blend of chance and expertise at work do more than dazzle, they explain why men and women will surrender their lives to a dream.