Capote director Bennett Miller takes to the field to adapt a real life sports story with a built-in triumph-against-the-odds trajectory potentially as cheesy as a deep fried Pizza Hut margarita dipped in a bucket of melted cheddar and lathered with a three inch thick coating of triple cream brie.
Instead Miller shows how the syrup of Mighty Ducks style whoop-from-the-sidelines sop can be dried into a dramatically credible sports biz drama, with the bones of his screenplay — adapted by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin — taken from a book by Michael Lewis.
Like Bruce Beresford’s The Club (1980) and to a lesser extent Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999), Moneyball is concerned with the politics of a sport — in this case, baseball: where the moolah comes from and goes, how meeting room machinations pan out, who plucks players from where and how. A sport movie with virtually no sport, and yet, teasingly, the story is about the greatest reversal of fortune in American baseball history.
Bill Beane (Brad Pitt) is the GM of the Oakland A’s, a team which can afford to spend a fraction of competing teams budgets. They ain’t faring very well and in the bold tradition of wrecking ball managerial styles Beane stirs things up, big time. He recruits Yale-educated economics nerd Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and implements a new system Brand invented for analysing team requirements and filling them. In a nut shell, Brand’s theory emphasizes statistical trends rather than particular people, ignoring the lure of hiring high profile players.
Bennett’s direction, loaded with mid-shots and close-ups, is packed tight, with scant breathing space, the audience forced into spit distance proximity to the characters. His focus is on developing tense interpersonal relationships.
Much of the human interaction takes place between Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, as Beane and Brand, who talk shop and umm and ahh as the central wheeler-dealer-decision-makers. The pair make an engagingly mismatched chemistry: Pitt handsome and boisterous; Hill fat and mannered.
Brand is a numbers man, an economist, a devotee to numerical logic. Who is he after hours? We don’t know. Nor do we understand Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who scrunches his face and pouts as the reluctant coach forced to deal with the hand Beane has dealt him.
Beane occupies the lion’s share of Bennett’s attention. Much of the film’s tight, twitchy density comes from its narrow personal focus; a reluctance to explore lives away from the office. Bennett’s refusal to dish out even one or two high impact moments for the supporting characters is both commendable and disenfranchising.
On the rare moments in which baseball the game, not the biz, is depicted in Moneyball, we see grainy stock footage or tightly controlled atmospheric moments. Bennett judges the mood perfectly, models it with constrained chutzpah. The soundtrack mutes at the same time most other You Can Do It sports movie moments would explode with cheers; images are close and sweaty, the camera reluctant to cut to hooting fans and waving flags.
Hints of Aaron Sorkin’s influence can be found in the film’s snappy dialogue and whiplash-wordy back room meeting turnarounds. Its closing moments are as classy a wrap-up as they come; closer to art house than multiplex and the final reminder that Moneyball — a compelling, tightly handled, expertly directed film — is the antithesis of fist-in-the-air sports flicks.
Moneyball’s Australian theatrical release date: November 10, 2011.