Despite being one of the last bankable names in Hollywood, Brad Pitt has never seemed much interested in acting like a Movie Star, at least not onscreen.
Even his highest grossing hits—oddball anomalies like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds or the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading —feel like they were only able to get made because Pitt is one of the most tabloid-famous people in the universe. Who else could get financing for a film with a title like The Assasination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford ? The Tree Of Life , anybody?
As an actor, Pitt usually tries to play against his ridiculous looks, often uglying it up for a role or adopting self-consciously kooky accents. The Ocean’s movies are the only time you’ll find him coasting on charm, which is a shame because he happens to be very good at it. But in Bennett Miller’s Moneyball , Pitt finally surrenders and delivers the kind of mega-watt charismatic, Old-Fashioned Movie Star performance we’ve all secretly been waiting for.
As a pal noted, “He’s playing the role exactly the way Robert Redford would’ve, back in the 1970s.”
Based on Michael Lewis’ best seller, Moneyball stars Pitt as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, a once-promising player who washed out young. Now he’s stuck trying to run a financially crippled franchise in a league where the big teams have gotten so rich that the smaller markets have been priced right out of competition. An opening-title card announcing a playoff game between the New York Yankees and Beane’s beleaguered A’s slyly replaces the team’s names with their payroll budgets, reminding us that what we’re really watching here is a battle of resources.
After losing his superstar sluggers Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon at the end of the 2001 season, Beane’s strapped for cash and there aren’t a lot of prospects in his price range. His only option is to think outside the box, and a young numbers-cruncher named Peter Brand might be just what he’s looking for. Played by an uncharacteristically subdued Jonah Hill, this kid is obsessed with sabermetrics. A then-radical reappraisal of baseball stats pioneered by Bill James, it’s a science that leans heavily on complex mathematical formulas involving stuff like on-base percentage and … are your eyes rolling back in your head yet?
Fear not, as all this (literally) inside baseball gobbledygook is served up for your consideration by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who rewrote an earlier script by Steven Zaillian, putting his trademark rapid-fire banter in the service of surprisingly sturdy and traditional underdog sports movie formulas. If you don’t think balancing a payroll budget and calculating percentage stats can be the stuff of riveting drama, remember that Sorkin recently won an Oscar for a movie about a lawsuit involving fucking Facebook. This dude can make anything compelling.
In tried-and-true, crowd-pleasing fashion, Moneyball pits Beane and Brand against an entire industry full of naysayers and finger waggers. Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition, which, grand as it may be, also leads to a mindset that things should be done the way they’ve always been done, simply because that’s the only way they’ve ever been done. It’s not exactly an atmosphere conducive to innovation.
Beane and Brand assemble what the latter describes as “an island of misfit toys,” grabbing has-been or never-were players on the cheap and sometimes making them swap positions. There’s a delightful subplot in which catcher Scott Hatteberg (played by Parks And Recreation ’s secret weapon Chris Pratt) must suddenly learn how to play first base.
These guys aren’t slugging for home runs or hall-of-fame glory, they’re just trying to get on base. Beane cannily describes this sport as “a war of attrition,” and what Moneyball understands better than most baseball pictures is the marathon nature of the season. The games go on, day in and out, but with time on your side and a slow-and-steady philosophy, eventually the numbers are going to start adding up.
Capote director Bennett Miller mostly stays out of the screenplay’s way, a few regrettably artsy-fartsy flourishes aside. Miller falls victim to the gradually expanding flashback syndrome, but makes canny use of vast, empty stadiums, and his sound design is chilling, Eventually he figures out the sure bet is to just leave the camera on Pitt while he’s speaking fluent Sorkin-ese. At its best, which is very often, Moneyball is preposterously entertaining, as we’re watching Beane and Brand hustling sports agents, owners and rival GMs.
This is a movie about the game of baseball that contains surprisingly little actual baseball. It’s more like The Bad News Bears Go To Economics Class.
Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Brad Pitt, Robin Wright and Jonah Hill