Baseball movies are all about the romance. In Bull Durham, groupie Susan Sarandon beds a rookie to create a star.
In Field Of Dreams, Kevin Costner builds it, and they come. In The Natural, Robert Redford hits a homer with a bat carved from lightning. In Moneyball, romance is dead.
Billy Beane, the real-life baseball manager here played by Redford’s protégé Brad Pitt, can’t even bear to watch his team play. He’s a failed pro turned backroom guru for the cash-strapped Oakland A’s, hoping to turn the tides not by Hollywood miracles but statistical probability.
“How can you not get romantic about baseball?” Billy asks with mischievous irony. And yet, as Billy’s sabermetric tactics see the A’s become record-breaking contenders, the romance is inescapable.
As director Bennett Miller observes in featurette ‘Reinventing The Game’: “As much as you try to reduce it to a formula... it still produces inexplicable outcomes... that could have only been designed by the baseball gods.”
See also: the movie gods. For Moneyball is a fairly eloquent metaphor for where Brad Pitt is these days. An A-lister AWOL from the mainstream, he’s consistently challenged conceptions of stardom by playing a cowboy assassinated by a coward, a curiously ancient baby, a Nazi scalp-hunter, a humble branch in life’s tree…
Yet he still delivers big numbers. As star and producer, he turned an unpromising, low-key movie in which lame, clumsy no-hopers best all-American athletic prowess, into an award contender and sizeable hit.
Pitt was attached early on, seeing the project through a rocky development process that saw the studio pull the plug three days before Steven Soderbergh was due to start filming. He regrouped, hiring Miller to direct and bagging Aaron Sorkin fresh off The Social Network to polish Steven Zaillian’s script.
Handy, because Pitt – like Beane – is Sorkin’s kind of guy: “I like stories where everybody’s laughing at one person and he perseveres anyway,” he notes on featurette ‘Adapting Moneyball’. Comparisons with Sorkin’s last film are unavoidable.
Nobody fancied the ‘Facebook movie’ until they twigged it wasn’t about Farmville. Here, the relentless baseball jargon, incomprehensible to anybody outside America, is a smokescreen for a universal story about an underdog taking on a flawed and outmoded system.
Moneyball is translatable to British sport (a Premier League where pampered players won’t come off the bench) and society (a banking industry that gives massive bonuses to bosses of failed firms).
Yet, while Sorkinian epigrams filter through, Zaillian’s influence remains in the film’s calm charm and measured character study. Moneyball’s Zuckerberg surrogate, Ivy League number-cruncher Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), is too shy and tongue-tied to deliver those rapid-fire bon mots.
Instead, as Sorkin notes, Brand is merely the Sancho Panza to Beane’s Don Quixote, whose determination to beat the game’s moneyed giants is grounded in his conflicted feelings about being seduced as a rookie by a mega-bucks contract he never delivered on.
Pitt’s performance plays with the contradictions. Whether sashaying away from a meeting with a cheeky wiggle or chomping on a Twinkie, Pitt is in devilishly charismatic mode.
In the film’s stand-out set-piece, Beane juggles multiple phonecalls to broker an all-important deal: a whip-smart Sorkin riff. Underneath, though, there’s a sadness and reserve to Pitt’s role that recalls Jesse James, uncomfortable with a status he doesn’t feel is deserved, and Benjamin Button, haunted by running in the opposite direction to convention.
Yet check the blooper reel: a single take of Pitt collapsing, repeatedly, into giggles. It’s the goofily gorgeous Pitt he seldom ever plays any more, and proof of how finely calibrated Beane is between the star’s natural charisma and his desire to dig deeper.
The film follows Pitt’s example by never stooping to the obvious. The narrative could easily have been the players’ story, an “island of misfit toys” coming together through shared determination. But there’s no ‘I’ in team and no A-listers among the Oakland A’s themselves.
Even as the film hots up, and it threatens to become an Inspirational Sports Movie, there’s a steely matter-of-factness to Wally Pfister’s camerawork that keeps triumphalism at bay.
Featurette ‘Playing The Game’ reveals the extraordinary lengths Miller took to retain sporting authenticity, not to milk the drama but in order to stop unlikely events looking unbelievable. Miller’s strategy mirrors the story most obviously in his casting.
Just as pudgy Brand is nobody’s idea of a sporting sensei, Jonah Hill isn’t an obvious dramatic foil, but he reveals untapped reserve and quiet control. In contrast, Miller’s Capote colleague Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing old-school coach Art Howe, is the equivalent of the star players who don’t fit into Billy’s new regime.
By the film’s finale, Hoffman is reduced to a near-wordless bit-part. It takes balls to sideline talent like that… No wonder studios were scared off by the film’s absence of drama. Sure, they now look like the scouts who scorned Beane’s methods, but they weren’t to know Pitt and Miller were playing a different game.
Too often, Hollywood’s big-hitters strike out on opening weekend after gambling on the home run; these guys trust themselves to score one base at a time, seducers rather than sensationalists. Maybe it is about romance, after all.