Those who believe America's national pastime is more resistant to the corrosive effects of money than other pro sports will find equally persuasive ammunition and counterargument in "Moneyball" (Columbia).
Based on Michael Lewis' 2003 book about baseball's Oakland Athletics, this thinking person's sports flick identifies how big bucks have negatively affected the grand old game in recent decades. Yet the fundamental problem is not just the exorbitant sums players are being paid. Rather, it's that those funds are being irrationally allocated by those who ought to know better—owners, general managers, scouts and coaches.
It isn't an easy case to make on screen, particularly in a mainstream feature whose primary objective is to entertain (and thereby turn a profit). Fortunately, the true-life tale has an appealing, principled hero. His name is Billy Beane and he's portrayed by Brad Pitt. We meet Beane, an ex-ballplayer, at the end of the 2001 season. He's general manager of the A's, a small-market team that has made it to the playoffs and then had its roster looted by richer ballclubs.
Replacing talent like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon on a shoestring budget is a herculean task. With palpable frustration, Beane challenges his old-school underlings, including a chorus of veteran scouts and his crusty manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to think differently when assessing player talent.
Then, on a horse-trading visit to the Cleveland Indians during the offseason, he encounters a young staffer with an economics degree from Yale. Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) advocates a statistics-based approach gleaned from the writings of analyst Bill James, who's considered a fringe figure by the baseball establishment. Using complex metrics, Brand's method consists of identifying certain skills in undervalued athletes who can be signed on the cheap. Specifically, it seeks those whose high on-base percentage will lead to runs and hence wins.
Desperate, Beane hires Brand to be his assistant and the pair meets significant resistance as they piece together a competitive squad with a comparatively miniscule payroll. The A's enter the 2002 campaign as huge underdogs. The season's ups and downs are related to Beane's own playing career, and their effect on his relationship with his 12-year-old daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey) are also touchingly dramatized.
Director Bennett Miller ("Capote"), working from a script by two lauded screenwriters, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, has made a mature, cerebral and understatedly wise film. There's nothing flashy about it, and the lack of hot-dogging means the movie's considerable humor has to grow organically. Viewers shouldn't expect to emerge sticky with pine tar and tobacco juice, since it's not a jock-fest offering much feel for how the game is played on the diamond.
Aimed at the uninitiated as much as diehard fans, "Moneyball" dares to be quiet and circumspect. There are no easy answers on tap; like baseball, it's about patience and believing in a process. Still, explaining the underlying theory in more detail, particularly early on, would make it more accessible. And the leisurely pacing sometimes makes it feel like an extra-inning pitchers' duel. As for the performances, Pitt and Hill are enjoyable, although the younger actor isn't completely convincing in the role.
In the final analysis, "Moneyball" is winsome because it sees beyond financial gain and number-crunching. Like the nobly motivated Beane, it respects the game while being eager to spur positive change. And it relays a timeless, double-headed lesson: Money can't buy baseball pennants or happiness.
The film contains two uses of rough language, some crude and crass language, an instance of sexual banter, a few sexist remarks, and a scene in which a player's religiosity is treated in a sarcastic manner. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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