Movie Review: Moneyball, Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt

Brad Pitt in Moneyball
Brad Pitt in Moneyball. (SUPPLIED)

Movie Reviews
By Bernie Jablonski

In my not-so-vast experience of watching sports movies (and right away we can argue if that’s what this is) MONEYBALL is probably the oddest of the genre that I have ever seen. You come from the movie exultant and fully believing you can do anything you set your mind to, and you want to tell your friends that, like a great baseball team the movie has heart, but at the heart of the success and victory portrayed in this movie there isn’t a warm fuzzy center, but acts of coldness and calculation.

But somehow, you do leave the theater feeling that you have, as my brother says, “the strength of ten men.” This is the best sports movie I’ve ever seen. (Okay, my previous favorite sports movie is probably BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, but hey, I’ve seen ROCKY, and THE NATURAL, and THE LONGEST YARD, the real one, and THE KARATE KID… I think I’m starting to scrape here.) In its honesty and refusal to assault the heartstrings, I found more real behavior, dialogue and emotions in ten minutes of MONEYBALL than I did in all of THE BLIND SIDE. Sorry. You were probably gunning for me after BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM anyway.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) General Manager of the Oakland A’s (I believe that stands for Athletics…Just kidding.), a team with a modest budget, and is tired of having his best players swept up by richer teams like the New York Yankees. He doesn’t want his team to be a “farming ground” anymore, and while listening to his scouts and advisors talk about how they’re going to replace those they’ve lost (hearing them rejecting one possibility, for instance, because he has an ugly girlfriend, and that shows a lack of confidence), Beane metaphorically scratches his fingernails on the chalkboard and brings the meeting to a halt. He tells them all that they have to come up with a new way of thinking to provide the team with the best players.

The scouts assure Billy that the way they’ve always done things is, of course, the best way, but for every method or old saw that they cite, Billy refutes it. Everything is kept gentlemanly, but tension rises, especially from the man that seems to be the Dean of Scouts, Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock), who seems to be the wisest and most articulate, but also the one most resistant to change. Billy leaves the meeting frustrated.

I have not seen such outstanding casting all the way down to the smallest roles since the last Joel and Ethan Coen movie. I remember watching a movie like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and marveling at how impressively real the actors playing hotel clerks and gas station attendants were. In MONEYBALL, we have a room full of scouts, sitting at a table, and each of them seems to have his own story, his own past, without a producer’s nephew in any of the parts. The other thing I also found consistently impressive about the casting (and directing) is that in spite of all the characters’ gentility and eloquence and good-naturedness, there is an inherent sense of violence in all the men. Maybe it’s just because I was always the last person on the parking lot chosen for softball in grammar school, but I often wondered how long it would take before the negotiation scenes ended with blood and teeth all over the place.

While trying to make trades from another team, with the owner played by a hirsute, almost unrecognizable Reed Diamond (from my favorite TV show ever, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS), Billy notices one man in the room that seems out of place, but apparently has the ear of the owner. After being turned down, Billy tracks him down in a great series of hunter and prey shots. The man turns out to be Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), and Billy asks him what makes him so special. Brand, apparently, knows the secret behind hiring the right (not necessarily the best) players, even though his own thoughts usually have to be filtered through another scout for them to be heard. Billy instantly hires him away to work for the A’s.

Despite coming from a family firmly devoted to the White Sox, my most favorite memory of being taken to a ball game by family or friends was filling out the scorecard. Hey, I even thought all the ushers had those cool hats with their own individual names on them, so imagine the glee I gave my sixth grade class when I addressed one of them as “Mr. Frain.” My misunderstanding of all things baseball, however, is almost matched by my befuddlement by all things mathematical, but it didn’t get in the way of enjoying the movie. Therefore, I really won’t be giving away anything in talking about Pete Brand’s method of hiring and keeping ballplayers.

Pete explains that rather than getting into a bidding war over the most expensive and prominent players, the A’s should find people that at the very least can get on base. There is plenty of discussion of average, how three mediocre players equal one really good player… I didn’t get it all, but it really doesn’t matter. Billy, in going way outside the box, implements Pete’s ideas with full confidence. At first, the results are heartbreaking, but soon, the plan begins to work, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In spite of this being one of the most naturalistic sports movies I’ve seen, there is the traditional Big Game, but it’s not like any you’ve seen. It takes place in the dark, and even though it has the stereotypical slow-motion shots, it has a whole Martin Scorsese feel to it. Similar to the La Motta-Robinson fight in RAGING BULL, there are periods where the crowd noises fade completely out, leaving us with a subjective environment of what individual people hear. It’s masterful. And even though the scene is the emotional climax of the movie, it’s certainly not the true, character-driven climax, something else I’m not used to seeing in this genre.

Brad Pitt couldn’t be better. He’s charismatic and empathetic, and Jonah Hill, as the calculating genius, is with him every step of the way. (It’s good seeing Hill as a more fleshed-out, “normal” character, balancing out his fine work in CYRUS.) The two trade, cut and send down players during some really enthralling scenes, and the scenes work because they feel so real. You’re swept up in the elation of it all, and only later do you realize that the scenes where the team is shaped, no matter what the cost (Pete, indeed has to learn how to fire players) really are substitutes for the training montages you’re used to in sports movies.

God love Philip Seymour Hoffman. How can a guy with such a specific body type and such a specific voice be so incredibly versatile? I didn’t even know he was in the movie until I realized why his voice was so recognizable. He plays the A’s manager, Art Howe. He plays the character in a rather quiet, withdrawn way, but again, there’s the sense that How might erupt in violence at the right moment. And given his reluctance to accept this seemingly irrational method of running a ball club, you’re almost expecting it to happen.

Kerris Dorsey, as Beane’s daughter Casey, is such a fresh and honest tonic to Jae Head’s Hollywood-cute and obnoxiously precocious kid in THE BLIND SIDE. Robin Wright has a nice scene with Pitt as Beane’s ex-wife, and the point where the two of them double-team her ineffectual new husband is a treat.

I’ve been calling this a sports movie, but it really isn’t about baseball, but about characters reacting to a situation. It’s a feel-good movie that’s more grounded in reality than you’re used to seeing. See it, especially if you’re not a sports fan.

Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.

Official trailer for Moneyball