There's a great movie inside "Moneyball"; unfortunately, what's on the screen is merely good. One of the year's big Oscar hopefuls, this adaptation of Michael Lewis' nonfiction book about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who helped change the way major league baseball teams evaluate talent, is a film in which you're never less than entertained, even if you get the nagging sense that what you're watching isn't nearly as compelling or deep as it should be. Most people aren't going to care: This is a fun, smart, breezy story. But those who were hoping for more -- particularly baseball fans -- may shake their heads at what could have been.
Directed by Bennett Miller, who last made "Capote," "Moneyball" takes us into the world of the A's, starting with the offseason after they lost in the 2001 playoffs to the much richer New York Yankees. Beane (Brad Pitt) knows his small-market team can't compete with the deeper pocketbooks of the Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, but with the help of Peter Brand (a pseudonym for actual assistant GM Paul DePodesta, played by Jonah Hill), a nerdy young Yale economics grad who believes he's come up with a mathematical system for finding cheap diamonds-in-the-rough, he sets about rebuilding the A's for the 2002 campaign.
"Moneyball" initially seemed to be advertising itself as this year's "The Social Network": a recent true story about how scrappy, geeky underdogs beat the system and changed the rules of their particular world. (Plus, Oscar-winning "Social Network" screenwriter Aaron Sorkin co-wrote the adaptation.) But while the films share some surface similarities -- especially in the beginning when Beane and Brand are coming up with their master plan -- "Moneyball," for better or worse, mostly resembles a sports movie. Specifically, it's one of those sports movies where the underdog triumphs, but not before going through a sort of "Bad News Bears"-style initiation where the undervalued players struggle mightily and make fools of themselves on the diamond.
The movie has a freewheeling style that's pretty enjoyable, but pretty soon it becomes apparent that that's the only style the movie has. After the moral ambiguity of "Capote" (and the bizarre, poignant study of New York tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch in the documentary "The Cruise"), Miller seems to want to deliver just a simple, solid drama that hits a lot of crowd-pleasing buttons. Even when "Moneyball" goes into deeper emotional terrain -- explaining how Beane's failure as a pro player (after practically being guaranteed by scouts that he'd be a huge star) drives his competitive fire -- Sorkin and co-writer Steven Zaillian's screenplay offers a lot of sharp dialogue but not a lot of real insight into baseball or the business of professional sports.
The film opens with a quote from all-time great Mickey Mantle talking about how even veterans of the game still get surprised how little they understand about baseball, but "Moneyball" never fully wraps its head around the intoxicating madness of the sport. On a fundamental level, Miller and his writers don't quite acknowledge that, while the 2002 A's were a successful team, there really is so much luck, chance and intangibles that go into making a winner. There's a deep irony about Beane and Brand/DePodesta's method: It forgoes traditional baseball scouting biases for a dispassionate look at player statistics, but it's a game that still has to be played (and won) by flesh-and-blood humans. Sadly, "Moneyball" a little too easily makes it seem like Oakland's success was based entirely on a special formula. Beane and DePodesta deserve credit for incorporating controversial baseball statistician Bill James' "sabermetrics" to outsmart major-market teams, but the film seems a little too awed by their results, not quite taking into account the unknowable factors that can help produce a winning or losing club.
Likewise, Miller and Pitt never quite solve the mystery of Beane. As a main character, he's presented as a cocksure, competitive guy who's good at his job. But there's not much pathos in his backstory -- nor is there much resonance in the filmmakers' somewhat half-hearted stab at developing a relationship between him and his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey). Pitt brings his typical charisma to the part so that you really like the guy, even if you don't quite feel like you know him. In this way, he's well-matched with Hill, whose Brand starts off as a number-crunching dweeb and ends that way. It's a reserved performance from Hill and one of his best, but you feel yourself dying to get past his brain to learn more, and the movie doesn't go there.
Baseball fans will love the nitty-gritty details of the trades and player moves that went on that season, and it's fun to see who's been cast to play, say, David Justice. (Perhaps the best is Miller's "Capote" Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman as manager Art Howe. Here Miller does twist the conventional sports movie template by making the manager basically an ineffectual afterthought rather than the inspiring leader ready with the big speech at any occasion.) But the baseball world "Moneyball" conjures up is more anecdotal than deeply immersive. As in "Capote," Miller is at arms-length when observing his subjects in "Moneyball," which provides some nice distance and perspective. But it also opens the movie up to charges that it doesn't quite love or understand its milieu enough to truly penetrate it. As a result, "Moneyball" tends to feel a bit at a remove. Not one performance is out of place, and not one moment seems off-key. Still, if "Moneyball" was a ball club, you'd say it has a lot of good pieces but isn't quite championship-caliber.