Bennett Miller‘s Moneyball (Sony, 9.23) is my idea of a triumph. A triumph of surprise and deception, I should add. It’s an emotionally low-key, thinking man’s Field of Dreams — a smart, true-to-life, business-of-baseball movie with a touch of the mystical and the sublime, and propelled along by a highly pleasurable lead performance by Brad Pitt. It’s not just the emotional and spiritual currents that makes it great, but the subtlety of them.
Earlier this year someone called it “the Social Network of baseball movies,” and that’s a close enough description except for the fact that Pitt’s lead performance is highly likable. Moneyball is definitely a nominee for Best Picture, Best Actor (Pitt), Best Director (Miller), Best Adapted Screenplay and so on.
And I don’t want to hear any crap about how it’s not rousing enough or sports-movie-ish enough or emotionally uplifting enough in a Rocky-Warrior sense. Fuck all that. This is a movie about how things work, and what it’s really like to say, “Wait, I’ve got a new idea” and to deal with the entrenched hate that always comes from that.
I’m not into baseball that much but I used to be, and Moneyball re-awakened my affection for the game precisely because it’s a little nerdy — my first text was that “it’s baseball nerd heaven” — and kinda mystical and because it doesn’t traffic in the standard sports-movie inspirational uplift crap…and yet it does do that in a nicely grown-up way.
On a rote level Moneyball is a complex, enjoyably verite, real-life, beautifully directed sports flick about two baseball-underdog iconoclasts (Brad Pitt as the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane + Jonah Hill as a brilliant, Yale-educated nerd-dweeb that Pitt hires) using a kind of new-math strategy to try and win games. But that’s just the plot-engine aspect, the “hook”…whatever.
What it’s really about is the ecstatic, pure-gravy pleasure of watching a first-rate, award-quality fall movie that’s made for you and me and everyone out there who hated Stupid Crazy Love, plus the holy-shit excitement of a serious, Oscar-level Brad Pitt performance. Seriously. Pitt has never had a better-written part, or such a spirited, multi-layered and vulnerable character to dig into, or given a more primal movie-star performance in his life.
Yep — it’s Pitt vs. Clooney in this year’s Best Actor race. Okay, Pitt vs. Clooney vs. Leonardo DiCaprio as Gay Edgar Hoover.
Moneyball is exactly the kind of sports movie that I’ve recently come to love (i.e., partly a Friday Night Lights-type deal and partly an Undefeated thing but without a do-or-die locker-room speech or a “we’re Number One!” third-act win). It’s mystical, statistical, spooky, emotional and wonderfully original. And wonderfully “pure” in a sense. The complexity mixed with the spirituality and the political reality of things…just brilliant.
Plus it’s elevated all along by killer-level Steve Zallian-meets-Aaron Sorkin dialogue. Did I mention Pitt is great in it?
Put another way, it’s about organizing a baseball team in a different nerdy way (“saber-metrics” and all that) and the political pushback that Pitt and Hill have to deal with from almost everyone, but — this is the exceptional surprise element — it’s also about how the forces and wills of the Gods suddenly step in and make things happen when they feel like it. Angels over the outfield. So call it a nerdy baseball movie mixed with spirituality and politics and adult-level complications…sublime.
Hill is perfect — it’s easily his best performance since Superbad and his first normal-level adult performance. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is tight and testy and spot-on as the Okalnd A’s manager. Arliss Howard delivers a perfect third-act cameo. Robin Wright has exactly one scene as Pitt’s ex-wife (director Spike Jonze plays her boyfriend…hilarious!) Tammy Blanchard is visible as a player’s wife but has no lines. The woman in Pitt/Billy Beane’s life is his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), and she’s all the movie needs.
I’m going to repeat an observation from an HE reader that was initially posted last March:
“Sports films are almost never really ‘about’ sports. They always have a primary, more traditionally cinematic concern on their mind: a relationship on the rocks or a budding romance, the rise of the downtrodden or the triumphant return of the forgotten or discarded. Even the notion of the big game being won is a well-trodden, pedestrian conceit that serves as the usual metaphor for the final challenge a protagonist or team must face.
“Moneyball may well be the first sports film not seen through the prism of a romance a la Bull Durham, a character drama a la The Blind Side, a tragedy a la Brian’s Song, or a comedy a la Major League. Rather, it is the first of its kind: a sports film seen through the prism of sports.”