Baseball: not a game of which I understand the small print. I’m familiar with the terminology, particularly following Chad Harbach’s elegant and enjoyable ‘The Art of Fielding’, so I wasn’t totally oblivious during Moneyball upon hearing swift reference to ‘bunts’, ‘outs’ and ‘pinch-hitting’. But I’m not entirely sure about what these mean with regard to a game.
This isn’t too much of an issue, thankfully. Moneyball is a film partly concerned with minutiae, but not to the extent that it occludes the unbeknownst. It’s about squeezing the stats until several cheap, journeymen players pop out: unfashionable, awkward guys with peculiar pitching techniques, players that have underperformed or been misused, or that are mercurial or difficult – but may, were they marshalled auspiciously, ‘get to base’ and cumulatively get results.
Brad Pitt is the improbable Oakland ‘A’s ‘general manager’, Billy Beane, who, as flashbacks illustrate, was once a much-touted starlet, eventually signing for the New York Yankees and dropping any ideas of college. We see his younger manifestation choke and mis-hit time and again for a diminishing succession of clubs, the Yankees dream long over, and his luck eventually gives out. Having made a huge life decision ‘based on money’, his ill-fated memories serve as a cautionary provocation towards ‘integrity’, and his latter career on the sidelines is at a pivotal point: his owner has no money, he hasn’t yet made a name for himself and he’s backed into a corner once his best player (followed in short order by two other high-profile stars) is enticed elsewhere by the chance of success (and a big pile of green).
So, we’re privy to curmudgeonly, rankled meetings amongst Pitt and his ‘old-guard’ coaching and scouting staff, some pushing eighty by the looks. They’re not inclined to innovation, of course, and are looking to directly replace the departing talisman and make the best of it. Pitt knows the ace that’s jumped ship can’t (and shouldn’t) be replaced, and the overhaul he clearly has in mind is set in erstwhile motion once a chance meeting with Jonah Hill happens: thereafter Hill is taken on as an ‘advisor’: he will utilise his economic nous to formulate a ‘sybermetric’ mathematical system that pinpoints the aforementioned marginal, affordable players that are in career slide.
Pitt, after much disagreement with his intransigent backroom boys, takes the plunge and drafts in his mooted ragbag assortment of underachievers. Head coach (I think that’s his working title) Philip Seymour Hoffman, very much a Rod Steigerish figure, gum-chewing dyspeptic, mumbling intent and mocking mirthlessness (and contract gripes), is a bit of an obstacle that holds considerable sway (and happily takes credit for Pitt’s eventually fruitful gambit) but even he’s eventually sidelined as the ideology reaps considerable success.
Pitt does a decent job of subduing the elements that might dampen this characterisation, but is still just a little too boyish, innocuous, for the suspension of disbelief necessary. The story and the execution are such that it doesn’t hamper Moneyball too much; that aside, he doesn’t pass muster as a motivator of myriad complex, insecure charges. He’s likable but he’s not particularly well-suited to the rousing demands here: not even as much as, say, Sam Rockwell or Matt Damon would be. (I’d’ve gone for Billy Crudup: probably not a big enough name.) Jonah Hill offers an impressive tranquil-but-nervy geek, enthusiastic but initially at sea, and Seymour Hoffman is effortlessly spot-on in a relatively minor role.
Bennet Miller, who did a very decent job of bringing Capote to life (again with Seymour Hoffman), doesn’t mire you in a stat tsunami, nor play too closely to the baseball-geek crowd. He keeps things going at a clean, unclogged clip and plays to the universal elements of a game, the intrinsics of which are perhaps beyond non-US audiences. The context and the traditional sweep of the film fills in or renders unimportant any troublesome terminology, in any case, and the gist is clear: this is Have Nots v Haves in a time of acute recession and hardship: you get your trad nerve-jangler, moment of truth and precipice-plummet-or-triumph scenes, with more than enough charm, wit and verisimilitude to squeak into the playoffs.