As of this writing, the Oakland Athletics (full disclosure: my Oakland Athletics), who have not posted a winning season since 2006, are 18 games out of first place in the American League West, a division that consistently offers only one sweet consolation to fans of the Bay Area's second-favorite baseball team: The doomed Seattle Mariners will almost always be even more hapless. Nine years ago, however, this small-market club with one of Major League Baseball's paltriest payrolls topped the AL West with a 103-59 record. Every season needs a Cinderella story, and in 2002, Oakland donned the fragile footwear. Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis' bestselling account of the Athletics' unlikely run, glues itself to A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) for a trip through that improbable year.
If that first paragraph did nothing for you—if the dehydrated poetry of sports-page chatter fails to tickle you even a little bit—I can almost guarantee Moneyball will leave you cold. For although director Bennett Miller (Capote) and his elite writing team (Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian) pad Beane's character with paternal longings and past defeats, there's not a whole lot of squishy human interest to dig into here. This is a movie about baseball and the obsessed men (women in the film are wives, ex-wives, extras) who devote their lives to it. Make no mistake: There is heart in Moneyball, but it's the part of the heart that swells at the sight of numbers on the back of a Topps card and breaks beneath tacky banners commemorating past championships.
Mercifully short on baroque re-enactments of pivotal match-ups and pandering locker-room banter, Miller's uptown update of Major League is almost wholly devoted to the front offices and underground clubhouses in which the game behind the game is played. The cash-strapped Beane is charged with the task of rebuilding a roster recently gutted of its superstars (Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, most notably) by East Coast organizations that need not be named. The swift, captivating first half of Moneyball finds Beane, the sort of jocular ex-jock who fears stillness, failing at his thankless mission before teaming up with math geek Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whose righteous faith in certain overlooked statistics convinces Beane to field a team of ostensibly mediocre has-beens and never-weres.
It wouldn't be a movie if Beane's bad news bears didn't succeed, of course, but Miller understands just how enervating a pitch-by-pitch victory march would be. And since Beane doesn't bother to watch his team play, we don't either. So when opening day arrives, Moneyball invests in the park's ambience, in the hacky national anthem, the giant American flag, the outsized check accompanying some hokey pregame PR. The subsequent ups and downs of the 162-game season register as last-minute trades, squabbles with scouts, klatches with coaches and various other verbal maneuvers conducted in windowless rooms filled with cheap furniture. Pitt, perhaps the most orally fixated actor not employed by Vivid Video, chews his way through these assignations; when he is not spinning language webs, he is sucking on tobacco or chomping on popcorn in the furious manner of a man who is afraid his mouth will quite literally run away from him. It's a delightfully wired performance, more action per minute in it than on any mound.
When Miller finally does take the field with the fictional Athletics for some extended game action, the Nike commercial that results is at glaring odds with the conversational rhythm of the rest of the film. It seems an almost intentionally clumsy stab at grandiosity, an unnecessary reminder of how Moneyball might have been rendered for the big screen by lesser filmmakers. It is as if Beane traded for David Ortiz and then made him warm the bench to underline the efficacy of his unorthodox strategies. But maybe we need the reminder: Sometimes it's the stuff we don't see that counts. And so: Let's go, Oakland!
90 SEE IT: Moneyball is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Clackamas, Eastport, Cinetopia Mill Plain, Cornelius, Oak Grove, Pioneer Place, Cinema 99, City Center, Hilltop, Lloyd Center, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville and Sandy.