Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
By Scott Renshaw
"Nobody re-invents this game," a baseball announcer smugly intones late in the deliciously entertaining Moneyball — and the same sentiment could represent the general approach to baseball movies. Over the years, baseball has been a cinematic metaphor for lost innocence, the struggles of a lone warrior for redemption against impossible odds, the quest for equality, the indomitable American spirit, etc. For nearly 100 years, movies have been spitting out a series of variations on James Earl Jones' swooning speech from Field of Dreams.
In adapting the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis (who also wrote The Blind Side), director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin tell the story of people who decided to throw away the romanticized notion of baseball in favor of something pragmatic. It's not at all coincidental that Moneyball takes a uniquely un-romanticized approach to making a baseball movie.
The story opens with the 2001 Major League Baseball playoffs, where the regular-season success of the Oakland A's disintegrates into a disappointing first-round exit in the playoffs, followed by a confrontation with harsh economic reality.
Unable to afford his own highly desirable free agents who flee for the wealthier Yankees and Red Sox, the A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faces a seemingly impossible rebuilding task. But a young Yale economics whiz named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) has embraced a new way of looking at players — one all about statistics — that veteran scouts and baseball insiders believe ignores every "intangible" about the game.
What follows could have been a standard-issue "underdog sports team" tale, and in some sense, it is. As Beane and Brand butt heads with the entrenched notions of their brain trust, including manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the film focuses on getting the new system working, leading to the inevitable winning-streak montage.
But Moneyball takes angles on these components that are at times completely original, and at times so well-executed that they feel completely original. And when that winning-streak montage does roll around, Miller mixes it up by focusing on players getting walks to emphasize the new concept of getting men on base. Even when Moneyball works in rapid-fire, inside-baseball patter, it feels less like a sports movie than like a smart workplace comedy/drama.
At the center of it all is Beane, and Pitt once again demonstrates why he should stick to roles that allow his natural comic charm to shine. Moneyball's flashbacks effectively establish the impact of Beane's own days as a player — he was a "can't-miss" prospect who did, in fact, miss — on his willingness to think differently.
The subplot involving Beane's relationship with his 12-year-old daughter feels like a forced bit of "humanizing" business, but Pitt's performance generally sticks to the urgency of someone who thinks he can have an impact on the game from behind a desk that he never had on the field.
It's fitting that Moneyball doesn't build to a conventional happy ending, because it's about something more complicated than who wins one particular game. Radical improvements come when someone is willing to brush aside nostalgia and stare reality in the face.
Here's a baseball movie for people who don't think they like baseball movies, because it has the good sense to do what the game itself generally has been afraid to do: set aside the appeal of continuing what's comfortable, because someone has an innovative vision for what's possible.