How sorry you think Jonah Hill is that he did 21 Jump Street now? Hill is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Moneyball. Brad Pitt is up for Best Actor. And Moneyball’s contending for Best Picture. Three reasons for re-posting my review from the fall as part of Oscar Week in Mannionville.
Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletic’s general manager Billy Beane alone with his thoughts and his ghosts in Bennett Miller’s movie adaptation of Michael Lewis’ account of Beane’s struggles to guide the A’s back to the playoffs after losing their best players to free agency, Moneyball.
Although set during the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 drive for the American League West’s division championship, Moneyball is no more about baseball than The Social Network is about social networking, Charlie Wilson’s War is about, well, Charlie Wilson’s war, A Few Good Men is about life as a United States Marine, or---to add a film that wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin---The Ides of March is about politics. Like those other movies, Moneyball is a character study of a not particularly heroic or exceptional man faced with what appears to be an insurmountable challenge.
That challenge---creating a billion dollar business out of thin air and in thin air, arming a small guerrilla army fighting a proxy war against the Soviet Union, building a championship ball club that can compete with the New York Yankees with a payroll less than a third of the Yankees’---may be interesting in and of itself, but for the purposes of the movie it matters mainly in the way it put stresses on the protagonist and reveals his strengths and weaknesses.
Brad Pitt stars as the A’s general manager Billy Beane who, after three of his team’s best players say goodbye to Oakland to sign on with richer, more competitive teams for bigger bucks than Oakland can afford to pay, has to figure out how to replace their bats and their arms on the cheap.
The A’s just don’t have the dough to go after stars in the free agent market. Those three departed players---slugger Jason Giambi, potential superstar outfielder Johnny Damon, and star closer Jason Isringhausen---have signed with new teams for a combined salary that’s only five million dollars less than Oakland’s entire payroll! The team seems doomed to fill in with journeymen and farm hands.
But then Beane has a chance meeting with Peter Brand, a recent Ivy League grad with a degree in economics who’s working as an assistant to the assistant general manager of the Cleveland Indians. Brand (played straight by a surprisingly adult Jonah Hill) shoots down a deal Beane has worked out with the Indians and Beane corners him and wants to know why. Brand turns out to be a computer geek and a wizard with numbers and he explains that most baseball insiders---scouts, coaches, general managers---consistently look at the wrong things when judging players. An in-depth look into the statistics will often reveal strengths and weaknesses that insiders overlook or undervalue. The A’s, Brand says, don’t need to replace Giambi or Damon. They need to replace the runs Giambi and Damon produced, and since there are a lot of different ways to score runs, there are a lot of different types of players, a lot more players, worth signing, including, and considering Oakland’s financial constraints, most helpfully, players every other team has written off.
The trick is identifying the right players, but all Beane needs to do, Brand says, is look at the numbers.
Beane hires Brand on the spot to look at the numbers for him.
And that is about the end of baseball as baseball’s place in the plot of Moneyball. From here on out, the focus is on Beane himself facing down demons from his past, facing up to past failures, personal and professional, and, although working as hard as he can to make his plan work, readying himself for the likelihood that he’s going to fail, again.
Beane is a former major leaguer himself, a once upon highly-touted prospect, drafted by the New York Mets in the first round in 1979, who was unable to live up to his potential. There was a simple reason for that. He had no potential.
He had reached his peak as a baseball player during his junior year in high school. He had never learned to discipline himself at the plate. He had never learned to discipline his temper. He was emotional and easily carried away, qualities that later helped wreck his marriage. His weaknesses, as a ballplayer and a person, were there to read in the numbers.
No one looked at the numbers.
The scout who signed Beane admitted he hadn’t looked at Beane’s stats from his senior year.
The Mets expected more, sooner, of Beane than they did of another outfielder they’d drafted ahead of him the same year.
Beane played major league ball for five full seasons and parts of two others. He bounced from the Mets to the Twins to the Tigers to the A’s, finishing his career in Oakland with a lifetime average of .219.
Having failed as a professional ballplayer, failed as a husband, half-convinced he’s failing as a father to his precocious and sensitive daughter, and so far unsuccessful in doing the job he believes he was hired to do, put together a pennant-winning ballclub, Beane is beginning to wonder if he’s been kidding himself and everybody else all along. He’s suspecting that he’s a cheap fraud.
All these years later, questions still nag at him. How could the scouts have been so wrong? Were they wrong? Had his coaches failed him? Or had he failed himself?
And just what does he think he’s doing now? Has he learned from his past or is he trying to make up for it?
These questions are part of an argument he’s having with himself and he keeps it mostly to himself. From time to time Pitt lets it creep into his voice and into his the attitudes towards other characters, but mainly he lets us see it taking behind his eyes.
Pitt’s Billy Beane isn’t the same sort of career-defining performance as George Bailey was for Jimmy Stewart or Doug Roberts was for Henry Fonda. But it’s the first in which Pitt shows that such a performance is in his near future. It’s his first as a certifiable adult, responsible for the younger characters in his charge and therefore responsible for the younger actors playing them. It’s the first movie he has had to carry on his own. Almost always in the past, Pitt has been paired with another star, often a bigger star, or he’s been part of an ensemble and not always the main character in that ensemble.
And he’s without a convoluted or gimmicky plot to hide in and has to do without the eccentricities of character he has relied on to distract audiences from how beautiful he is and make them pay attention to his character as a person apart from the movie star playing him. He’s there on the screen as just himself---well, as a regular guy who happens to look and talk like Brad Pitt---with nothing but Sorkin’s dialog and his own intelligence and talent to protect him, and he does just fine. It’s a deft, smart, understated, and admirably modest performance. He’s comfortable within himself in a way I don’t recall him ever quite being before, which is ironic because one of the things he does very well here is show how uncomfortable Beane is within himself.
Pitt’s Billy Beane has no self-importance. What’s happening to him matters to us because it matters to Beane and Pitt has us liking and rooting for him, and one of the things we like about him is that he keeps things in perspective. Beane is under no illusions that he’s curing cancer or bringing about world peace, or even revolutionizing baseball, which is to say that Pitt doesn’t allow any self-righteousness or special-pleading to creep in and carry him away. Beane is doing his job in the only way he can think of to do it successfully, but he’s well aware that if he’s saving anybody by doing it, it’s only himself. The immediate consequence of his failing will be he’ll get fired and that’ll be the end of his career in baseball, a very big deal to him but not to anybody else, not even to his daughter or Brand. They’ll be sad for him but they’ll get along just fine. Nobody else will care. Beane knows that and he doesn’t expect them to. A bigger concern for him is that he may not care himself.
This is the central question of his life at the moment, whether or not he’s worth caring about.
Pitt has Beane turning this over in his mind, ruefully, wistfully, but with hardly any self-pity, and what could have been a cliched portrait of a overgrown boy in mourning for his lost youth Pitt turns into a portrait of a once upon a time lost youth with no time to waste mourning his lost youth because he has to do his damn job as a grown man.
That’s why I say Moneyball isn’t about baseball. It’s a workplace dramady about a decent and well-meaning boss, quietly coming to the end of his rope, who has to steer his little ship of fools through a storm he’s accidentally sailed them into and has to take a desperate gamble to bring them safely to shore. Pitt could be playing any one with a small crew to skipper, a lawyer, a doctor, a police sergeant, an army lieutenant, a firehouse captain, the owner of a department store, or the captain of a boat.
It’s a little odd how Moneyball makes being the general manager of a major league baseball team look like an ordinary middle-class white collar job.
But even though it isn’t about baseball doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of baseball in it. Director Bennett Miller captures the atmosphere of the game and the business almost off-handedly but surely. The actors playing his ballplayers not only look and act like ballplayers they can play. That’s because many of them were and are ballplayers. Former major league shortstop Royce Clayton plays the free-swinging All-Star Miguel Tejada. Stephen Bishop who plays the aging slugger David Justice spent time in the Atlanta Braves farm system where he was known as Young Justice because in looks and style of play he resembled Justice. And Miller does a skillful job of blending simulated plays and events with clips from the real deal.
And of course the question that drives the plot---Are Beane and Brand right in trying to build a winning ballclub the numbers?---is a baseball question.
It’s not just his own self-doubts Beane has to overcome. His ideas and decisions are resisted within the A’s organization, first, and most vocally by Beane’s team of scouts---a hilarious Greek chorus of old baseball hands, some of them actual major league scouts, who seem to be holding a contest to see which of them can spout the most and most hoary baseball cliches. But his most serious opponent is the A’s manager, Art Howe.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking more like a real baseball manager---and more like Art Howe, for that matter---than the real Art Howe, plays Howe with a self-satisfied smirk and a malicious glint in his eyes that, if it’s possible for an expression to be an act of libel, ought to have the real Art Howe suing Hoffman, Miller, and the movie’s producers.
In refusing to start the players the numbers have told Beane to acquire or play them the way the numbers say they should be played, Howe seems to be deliberately sabotaging the team’s chances to make the playoffs. Neither the script nor Hoffman’s performance tell us if this is what Howe’s up to or why he’d do that. We can’t tell if it’s a gambit in contract negotiations. Howe is looking for an extension of his contract. We can’t tell if it’s a matter of pride. Beane is Howe’s boss but there’s an understanding in baseball that general managers leave the handling of the players and the day to day managing of games to the manager and his coaches. We can’t tell if it’s that Howe just doesn’t agree with Beane and trusts his own judgment more than he trusts computer spreadsheets. We can’t tell if he’s just not smart enough to follow the plot. Hoffman plays him, cagily, as a guy who’s maybe too cagy for his own good.
What matters is Howe as symbol of the old guard determined to hold onto their game.
There’s not enough of Hoffman in the movie. Some people would say there is never enough of Hoffman in any movie he’s in. But I suspect that he was able to film all of his scenes in one day and may have done it as a favor to Miller who directed him to his Academy Award in Capote.
There is, however, almost enough Jonah Hill. There are some people who would say there is always way more than enough Jonah Hill in any movie he’s in. If that’s true, it’s because his directors have a habit of overusing him or using him in ways that show up his weaknesses and not his strengths. They need to look at the numbers.
As Peter Brand---who is based on a real-life person who asked the producers to change the name, not because he was offended by the way he was portrayed, but because he was concerned that people he had to deal with in real life would expect him to be like the character in the movie---Hill plays his first certifiable grown-up. He’s a young man, but still a man not a boy, and his endearing insecurities, flubs, hesitations, and self-imposed humiliations are funny but not because they make him a loveable goofball but because we’ve been there. Brand is a smart, ambitious, talented young man who has to get older in a hurry and learn on the run. He stumbles because he’s running fast, uphill, over terrain pitted with hidden mole holes and bumpy with rocks and riven by gullies and streams he has to leap without breaking stride. No wonder he falls flat on his face so often. But he’s learning the whole time and Hill lets us see that.
Hill’s importance as a supporting actor is in playing the one person who believes in Billy Beane. But Brand’s importance as a character is established by Beane’s believing in him, and Hill makes it clear why Beane would.
With luck, Moneyball will convince Hollywood to stop using Hill as a minor clown and start casting him as a serious actor who, among other things, can do comedy.
Turns out, the real Art Howe isn’t real happy with the way he’s portrayed in the movie.