(Published in The Sunday Guardian, on 26 February 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/story-overpowers-the-star)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill
Director: Bennett Miller
Rating: 4 stars
It’s hard to make a film about a man who was offered $125,000 to play for the Mets when he was 18 and $12.5 million to manage the Red Sox when he was 44, without making him look like a hero. It’s harder to make a film about a man who gave up a scholarship to Stanford to pursue a career in Major League Baseball that never took off, without making him look like a tragic hero.
You walk into Moneyball, prepared for a template – underdog takes risks, underdog wins, uplifting music plays as its underrated architect is celebrated. And you’re pleasantly surprised by the carefully-crafted dialogue, judicious use of on-field footage, and lovely soundtrack.
In its exploration of the business behind baseball – or any sport, for that matter – the film is sensitive, funny, and so natural that it feels like a reality show along the lines of The Apprentice. The streetsmarts – coaches, scouts, men who’ve lived their lives with a ball in glove – take on the booksmarts – Ivy League graduate whose analysis is based on statistician Bill James’ controversial sabermetrics technique.
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is a failure of baseball conventions. He’s a five-tool player – great hitting power, good average, base-running skills and speed, aptitude for fielding, knack for throwing. So why didn’t he make it? Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whom Beane meets on a player-trading trip, has the answers. For over a hundred years, baseball’s got its parameters wrong. And that’s symbolised by the scouts – grizzled men with hearing aids and crabby tempers, who look like they wake up in a nursing homes. They reject players for their weak jaws and ugly girlfriends – indicators of low self-esteem.
The underlying themes are highlighted by the subtlety of the narrative. “How can you not romanticise baseball?” Beane says, ironically, twice. For a baseball story, the movie is delightfully understated, and poignantly non-macho. The situational humour – a shrivelled old man asking “Who’s Fabio?”, an ex-wife’s current husband trying to make polite conversation about baseball, the deer-caught-in-headlights expression on the face of a young manager confronted by a once-great player – is the perfect foil to a serious story about changing the game, in a world shorn of bubble wrap and fairy dust.
Granted, the film indulges Brad Pitt for a brief while, allowing him to play the doting parent, the nostalgic former future baseball hero, and the superstitious sportsman. But it’s intelligent enough to focus on Beane the Manager, not Beane the man. And between Billy Beane and Jonah Hill, Pitt never gets bigger than the film.
The Verdict: When a film about baseball makes you forget you don’t know baseball, it’s got to be good.