Review: “Moneyball”

1. I've always mocked scientific folk who love pointing out the obvious-to-them impossibilities in various science fiction films, the "in actuality, the flux capacitor would require far more than 1.21 jigowatts" crowd. It is a movie. We are willing to accept that a dog can play basketball and drive a car, but sloppy math, now that bothers us. Who cares? It's a movie! After watching "Moneyball," though, I have to confess: I kind of understand what they're talking about. I've been writing about baseball my entire life -- I even wrote a book about it -- and have been chronicling the changes that the book "Moneyball" affected for almost a decade. I was baffled how in the world one could construct a narrative around such a data-driven, fragmented book; I couldn't imagine how any filmmaker could conceivably solve it. Now that I've seen "Moneyball" the movie, I'm pretty sure they haven't, and all told, they probably shouldn't have even tried. The movie itself is charming, extremely well-directed and has considerable narrative propulsion, even if it's in fits and starts. But the baseball fan in me knows it doesn't make a lick of sense. The flux capacitor would totally require more than 1.21 jigowatts.

2. This is probably not fair. This is a movie specifically designed for an audience that knows little about baseball, and I wonder if those people will even catch all the story problems that seem blatant to me. But I also think a movie needs to have some internal consistency, and it needs to have a logic that is easily followed, or at least progresses in a fashion that doesn't contradict itself every five minutes. The story of "Moneyball" is to show how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) changed the game of baseball and found success, both professionally and personally, by going about this business differently than everyone else. But I don't think I'm being too baseball-y when I ask: What exactly does he do? I know in real life what he did. I'm talking about in the movie's story. We're told that Beane and his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) used statistics to objectively analyze players so they could take cold-eyed, dispassionate looks at the quality of their performance. Fine. So then why, when the A's are losing in the film, do they turn it around once Beane starts giving rallying speeches and befriending his players? I'm legitimately asking. What's the philosophy of this film? Why is Beane changing the game? The ultimate takeaway, the only answer this film has, is "Because Brad Pitt is charismatic." If this were a film about lawyers, rather than baseball players, we'd all be talking about the gaping plot holes you could drive a bullpen car through.

3. The movie gets considerable mileage -- one could argue almost all its mileage -- from Pitt's performance, which is so Movie Star High Wattage that it can nearly be overwhelming: Pitt is an actor who has spent so much time and energy trying to tamp down and mask his charm and looks that to see him turn the amp to 11 knocks you over. He's enormously likable and believable, even when his character isn't. His scenes with Hill sizzle -- it's a kick seeing Hill, in a modulated, smart performance, play the straight man to Pitt -- and Philip Seymour Hoffman does some impressive slow-burning as A's manager Art Howe, whose old-school philosophy clearly clashes with Beane's. But then again, that's another part of the problem: The movie doesn't do a good job of explaining precisely what Beane's philosophy is, so we spend the Beane-Howe scenes thinking more about how much fun it is to watch Pitt and Hoffman banter than try to understand what the actual difference is.

4. The film's a lot more comfortable with Beane in a baseball context than a life one too. We have a few sweet scenes with Beane's daughter, and we meet Beane's ex-wife and her new husband (nerdy and effete, for reasons I don't quite understand), and then it's back to the ballpark. This would be fine, but the movie clearly believes they're giving some insights into Beane's head, justifying all the glowering, sweaty closeups of Beane thinking, or working out, or Trying To Figure It All Out. Pitt impressively attempts to build a character out of a mishmash of disjointed details. The whole movie's like that. Its ethos is a hodgepodge, darting from one idea to the next, with little regard of how they might fit together. This makes "Moneyball" a series of enjoyable scenes -- director Bennett Miller is unusually skilled at capturing the hyperfocused intensity of a baseball game, with events happening in front of millions of people but feel, to the participants, as if they're happening in an abandonded tunnel in outer space -- that add up to nothing cohesive. You smile and tap your foot while the movie's going on, but you keep waiting for it to build to something. A movie this intelligent about moviemaking couldn't possibly be this dumb about story, could it?

5. It could, and is. For no reason other than that some of its cast is wearing baseball uniforms, the plot builds up to A Big Game. Now, as a baseball fan, I remember this game, and yes, it was quite dramatic. But it wasn't that important -- the A's haven't won the World Series, after all; it was just a regular-season game -- and if you buy the principles the movie is supposed to be selling, you know that. (Even Pitt's Beane doesn't watch the games, after all.) That still doesn't stop the film from portraying the game as if it is the ending of a conventional sports film. As a viewer, you'll find yourself wondering why exactly you're supposed to care. The movie never quite cracks the code, and it never gets too far inside Beane's head either. This wouldn't be a problem if this were just a conventional sports film, but it aspires to more than that but isn't disciplined enough to stay on one specific message. "Moneyball" wants to be cerebral and also rousing and also inspirational and also caustic and revolutionary. It ends up being none of these things. By the end, it ultimately admits as much and sends us off with a cute, crowd-pleasing sequence involving Beane's daughter. We're not much invested in Beane's relationship with his daughter, but once the movie has to end, it has run out of tricks, so: back to the daughter. Who doesn't love kids? Who doesn't love baseball? Who doesn't love Brad Pitt? How do you not love "Moneyball?" Ultimately, the film tries to coast on its charm without asking much of its audience. And by asking so little of us ... it cumulatively asks too much. Seriously: The flux capacitor would totally require more than 1.21 jigowatts.

Grade: C+