Moneyball, the movie, is an absolute mess of a film, the type of muddled end product you’d expect from a project that took several years and went through multiple writers and directors. Even good performances by a cast of big names and some clever makeup work couldn’t save this movie, and if I hadn’t been planning to review it, I would have walked out.
The movie failed first and foremost for me as a movie, not just as a baseball movie. (I’ll get to the baseball parts later.) The general plot here is that the A’s lose their 2001 ALDS to the Yankees and are about to lose three major players to free agency, so Billy Beane goes hunting for a new way of doing business. He runs into a stats geek working in Cleveland’s front office named Peter Brand, hires him, and Brand brings the sabermetric philosophy that we now associate with the early 2000s Oakland teams. This causes friction with Oakland’s scouts, who are all idiots, and Art Howe, who was a stubborn idiot (this is the movie, not my opinion), and Billy might even lose his job until the A’s get hot and win 20 games in a row. Meanwhile, we are to believe that this is all so Billy can purge the personal demons created by the failure of his playing career.
Billy is the only fully realized character in the entire movie, and even at that his disparate pieces don’t tie all that well together. Peter Brand, a.k.a. Paul Antipodesta, is a mousy number cruncher who looks like the lay viewer would expect a stat geek to look - unathletic, dressed in dull collared shirts and ties, intimidated by the players, with no complexity to the character. Howe is nothing but a holier than thou obstacle for Beane whose entire motivation for his stubbornness is his desire for a contract extension - a hopelessly tired plot device that makes for a one-dimensional character. Even Casey, Billy’s daughter, who is shoehorned into this weird plot strand about him possibly losing his job, is nothing more than the plot strand requires her to be.
The lack of multi-dimensional characters is exacerbated by the languid, aimless plot and stop-and-start pacing. The film mopes through Opening Day and the beginning of the A’s season, races through their midyear turnaround, then jumps through most of the winning streak until the twentieth victory, at which point we’re handed slow motion views of the A’s blowing an 11-0 lead … and of Art Howe thinking, with no sound at all. Even the paces of conversations are strange and often forced; one of the “action” scenes, if I could call it that, involves watching Billy juggle three GMs (Shapiro, Phillips, and Sabean) to try to acquire Ricardo Rincon. All three GMs come off as stooges, but more importantly, it’s boring as hell to watch anyone, even Brad Pitt, talk on the phone.
Pitt is very good with the stilted material he’s given and clearly made an effort to look and act the part, from his hair to his tone of voice to his facial expressions. He’s also frequently eating or drinking, which he seems to do in every movie in which he appears. Jonah Hill, as Peter Brand, is very good when he can use his character’s dry, monotonous delivery for comedic effect, drawing laughs from lines that aren’t inherently funny because his timing is so good. Chris Pratt has several funny moments as Scott Hatteberg, very recognizable if youve seen his work as Andy on Parks and Recreation, although he really only has two scenes of any significance in this movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman was wasted as Howe, unfortunately, playing a one-note character who would like you to know he doesn’t care what you have to say about baseball. Robin Wright Penn is also wasted as Beane’s ex-wife who is apparently married to a closeted gay man.
I could have tolerated a lot of flaws if Moneyball had just given me a good baseball movie, with some real tension to it, or perhaps a strong character study of Billy Beane. But the film provides neither, and I spent most of the movie wondering what was really on the line here. The A’s don’t win a playoff series in 2002, so the script can’t set that up as a goal or use the playoffs as a climax. Beane took a $39 million team to the playoffs the year before; he wasn’t going to be fired in May for taking a few risks that his owner more or less told him to take (and if he had been fired, he would have been hired by someone else in a heartbeat, despite the character’s later claim to the contrary). His daughter is worried about him because she doesn’t see the big picture, but neither she nor her father is in any real jeopardy at any point in the film. We’re not playing for anything here.
Then there’s the baseball stuff, which is not good. For starters, the lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, isn’t any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts) than it was on the page; they are set up as dim-witted bowling pins for Beane and Brand to knock down with their spreadsheets. It’s cheap writing, and unfair to the real people being depicted. Current Oakland scouting director Eric Kubota also gets murdered in a drive-by line that depicts him as a clueless intern given the head scouting role after Beane fires Grady Fuson in April after a clubhouse argument (that never really happened). I’ll confess to laughing at the scout referring to “this Bill James bullshit,” although the A’s bought into that bullshit years before the film claims they did - and, in fact, hired Paul Depodesta three years before the movie-A’s hired Brand. (In the film, Fuson refers to Brand as “Google boy,” a term applied to Depodesta by Luddite beat writers in LA three years later.)
The film also relies on some pretty gross misrepresentations or oversimplifications of the business. The idea of a GM getting on a plane and flying two thirds of the way across the country to meet another GM to discuss a trade for a left-handed reliever is so absurd that it should set off alarm bells in even the casual fan. Do you really think that GMs only talk trades in person? That they fly to meet each other for tete-a-tetes before consummating any deal? Similarly, teams don’t sign injured players to guaranteed contracts by flying out to their houses (on Christmas Eve, apparently) without having them go through physicals.
I wasn’t as concerned with the script having Beane trade Carlos Pena to Detroit for a reliever and some money (as opposed to the actual three-team, seven-player deal including Jeff Weaver and Jeremy Bonderman) as I was with seeing Pena, an intelligent, gregarious person, depicted as a sullen Latino player. I also find it hard to believe Beane would ever say he didn’t care about pitchers’ platoon splits. And the film’s emphasis on Beane not making it as a player seems to point to questions about his makeup, especially his confidence, which hardly ties into a film about how makeup is overrated.
If you do end up seeing the film, and I imagine most of you will, there is one scene towards the end that stood out for me as incredibly spot on, so much so that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the film. Beane is sitting in what was then called the .406 club at Fenway Park with John Henry, who is about to offer him a record-breaking deal to become the Red Sox’ new GM. Henry expounds on how Beane’s method of doing things is going to sweep through the industry, and how critics within the game weren’t just trying to protect the game, but were expressing their own fears about their livelihoods. That speech applies just as well to any industry undergoing the kind of creative destruction ushered in by Bill James, Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane. Remember that when you see the next written attack on “stat geeks” who are ruining the game along with a defense of RBIs or pitcher wins.