Sports movies have always been one of the tougher genres for audiences to embrace on a mass level. This usually has a lot to do with the sport in question, and in Bennett Miller’s new film Moneyball, baseball (a uniquely American past-time) is front and center. While the film may show limited appeal at first glance, it transcends that incorrect assumption by embracing its underdog true story and successfully juggling hope, love and frustration.
The main ingredient that sets apart the good sports films from the bad ones is heart. It may seem painfully obvious and simple but executing that fundamental emotion is anything but easy. It’s a skill that requires a balancing act of love and involving the audience in the sport you’re showcasing. If you get too saccharine it’s not a sports movie anymore, and if you get too technical and inside baseball (pun intended) you alienate a mainstream audience.
This is where credited screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin come in. They both have an authentic flair for dialogue and Sorkin in particular just won an Oscar this year for The Social Network, another true life story that juggles many different pieces. But instead of the self-destructive Mark Zuckerberg, Moneyball’s protagonist is Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. In the film he’s played with a suave swagger by the suave Brad Pitt, but this isn’t the kind of cool we’re used to from the superstar. Here he plays his cool as a false confidence that smiles on the outside while desperately struggling to keep his sanity at the same time.
We’re dumped head first into Billy Beane’s dilemma at the beginning of the film. As the GM of the Oakland A’s circa 2001, the Bay Area team is outmatched financially by larger corporations who can afford to pump millions of dollars to create a superstar franchise. Checkbook baseball is simply not an option for Beane and all seems lost but we’re only ten minutes into the movie so there has to be a turning point, right?
Enter a chance encounter with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a forgotten minion working for the Cleveland Indians who catches Beane’s eye while on a business trip for the A’s. Brand is just as scared and full of insecurities as Beane but he can’t hide it nearly as well. It shows in his quirky mannerisms and stuttered speech. Yet despite wearing his fear on his sleeve, Brand has a radical idea for an authentic baseball team. An idea he pitches to Beane as a mecca for under-appreciated talent that could flourish with just the right amount of love and guidance. While that description may read as formulaic and uninspired, Moneyball makes it work.
Credit is due to the most unlikely and surprising piece of this movie puzzle, Jonah Hill. His translation of Peter Brand as the unofficial mad scientist of the resurrected Oakland A’s is something that flows with a nervously assured energy. After all, he is the one with the sink-or-swim strategy for the A’s. He has to sell that idea not just to Beane but to the audience and in making us believe that his long shot is worth pursuing Jonah Hill steps out of his comedy comfort zone to prove he can bring the dramatic goods too. Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane is no slouch in the drama department either, continuing to prove that his superstar talents are put to better use in character dramas than huge blockbusters.
If there is a weak link in Moneyball it is certainly Philip Seymour Hoffman as Oakland A’s coach Art Howe. He is severely underwritten, grunting and angry through all of his scenes. I’m actually convinced this isn’t a performance at all and merely Hoffman reflecting on how poorly written his character is and sucking it up. That’s OK Philip, the last time you were in a Bennett Miller movie you won an Oscar for Capote, so consider this doing your friend a solid.
The Upside: There is an unexpected but welcome cameo from a hipster director who should get in front of the camera more often.
The Downside: Philip Seymour Hoffman is wasted in an underwritten role.