By and large, sports movies are of an ilk I do not like. Typically a little guy (often a bad or otherwise misbegotten team) goes up against a big guy (often a series of great or otherwise superior teams) and wins against all odds. To be honest, I get tired of seeing this film. I kind of feel like it’s all been done before. I strongly suspect that I am in the minority, but just in case I’m not, director Bennett Miller cast Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman in a baseball movie to draw me in against my better judgment. The film I’m describing here is, of course, Moneyball , the story of a team of losers going up against every other (better funded) team in the American Baseball League using a controversial technique grounded in economics and statistics. That very talented cast and the writing team of Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian take this from a standard story about the underdog to a truly heartwarming and self-aware sports movie that achieves on almost every level.
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the General Manager of the Oakland A’s. After a particularly terrible season, with three of his star players leaving for better salaries on better teams and no budget to replace them, Beane is left scrambling to find a solution. While meeting with another team to (unsuccessfully) find some new players, he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent graduate of Yale with a major in economics. Brand’s unconventional take on putting together a team based solely on a player’s ability to get on base catches Beane’s attention and he brings Brand on board as Assistant GM. Together they shirk all traditional baseball theory and begin to create a team based on statistics alone, inciting the anger of most of baseball’s fans and critics, to see if it truly is possible to change the way the game is played.
Moneyball takes a tense look at how things inside a ball club actually work. Where it could be commonplace and terrible, it is instead witty and poignant, and has a momentum that keeps the viewer engaged and on the edge of their seat the whole way through. The characters dance a line between cliches and real people, where the performances delivered feel like the honest actions of real people, rather than specific representations of the people they are intending to portray. Pitt is particularly good, putting in a performance that is subtle and nuanced. He portrays Billy Beane as a complex guy who’s quiet and damaged, but knows exactly what he wants and what he’s in this for. Jonah Hill, for his part, puts in an equally wonderful performance. While his usual over-the-top overweight funny guy routine is still present, it’s been toned down to play off of Pitt’s reserve. It seems that Hill has finally found a role to let his particular talents shine.
Despite sidestepping all sports movie cliches and pitfalls, this movie still delivers what is at the heart of all sports movies: lessons about the game that are really about life. Moneyball still has these moments, but it handles them with a self-aware humour that allows the viewer to get over their gut response to the overblown sappiness of those moments and laugh both at the film and themselves simultaneously. This is the film’s greatest strength and is what elevates it from forgettable to award-worthy
Moneyball has one remaining public screening on Saturday, September 17 at 2:30 pm. Check tiff.net/festival for details and tickets. Moneyball also opens in theatres on September 23, 2011.