I was so unsure about how these two would work together, glad to say they are very fun to watch.

The highest compliment I can pay to Moneyball is that it’s a movie about a sport I don’t just dislike, I actively hate, and yet the movie is not only as great as baseball is the opposite, it’s extremely watchable and engaging as well. Baseball is aggressively boring, corrupt, etc. I don’t like it. I’m not asking anyone to share that disdain, but that’s just how I feel. So it is with great surprise that I found even the parts that were directly about baseball to be a good time. This is mostly because of the writing and cast, together able to probably make anything (even baseball) both entertaining and a source of significant character study. Aaron Sorkin wrote this script. If you don’t know who that is, IMDB him and then nod your head sagely in understanding. If that isn’t enough, you have Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill (following up on Cyrus to prove he has some dramatic chops), and Philip Seymour Hoffman who is having yet another good year. If these guys showing up in an actor’s movie isn’t enough to get you going, I dunno what else to tell ya.

I call Moneyball an actor’s movie but it is almost equally a writer’s movie. This is apparent in the nuanced plotting, in which the film dovetails between being a (fresh) underdog story and a character study of Billy Beane. In case anyone is confused about what kind of movie Moneyball is trying to be, there are various small flashbacks to Beane’s past. These are stitched in not only to shed some light on what motivates the guy, especially his brazen arrogance (which Pitt plays to the hilt, having so much fun it’s impossible not to have fun right along with him) and stubbornness, but to also use the character as an example for why Beane and Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) may have the right idea about changing how baseball works. This is the underdog story, by the way, that these guys come up with a statistics-based system for building a team and playing it against all the assumptions, intuitions, and traditions of their sport. We learn that the Oakland Athletics are severely disadvantaged in an uneven sport filled with top tier teams snaking the poorer teams for talent.  This is a problem for Beane, a guy who hates to lose.

“What am I even doing in this movie?”

The extent to which this is an underdog story really takes shape after Beane hooks up with Brand and they make some trades that their scouts think are ludicrous in order to build a team that, mathematically, will probably give them more wins. This is a big risk, and it doesn’t pay off at first as Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) refuses to use the players according to the design Beane and Brand have devised. They lose way more than they win and the film really pushes this for just long enough to feel like a other scene of despondent players throwing equipment or Beane agonizingly trying to avoid jinxing them by listening in would be way too much. This long streak of losing is a deliberate choice for the writers, a choice that puts the audience in a position where, once the A’s finally start winning, riding that upswell of positivity is completely natural. This is handled through mirrored montages, more or less, a deft and understated way to do it which keeps the focus on Beane and Brand while still allowing some of the sports movie to trickle in. Still, Moneyball is way less a sports movie than it could have been. The underdog story is less about the A’s than it is about the guys running them.

Of course, while Beane says a couple of times that there’s a romance in baseball, the film might go a bit too far with that. While I think the winning streak bit is completely earned by just how hard the “failed experiment” angle is pushed at the beginning, the game where they almost blow it is steeped in melodrama that immediately calls attention that, hey, this is a fucking baseball game. Let’s keep the funeral music to a minimum, ya? Warrior, a far better sports underdog story, also makes this mistake though it is much more a flaw there than it is here as the operating philosophy in Moneyball is just a smaller scale version of what they’d already done with the loss/win streaks. To wit, the reason why we’re brought so low as Kansas City turns an 11 run lead completely around, is so we get maximum payoff when Scott Hatteberg, a player no one believes in, hits the homer that solidifies the 20-win streak (the best streak in baseball history). I get why they did it, in other words, but it just feels like a bit too much after a solid 10-15 minutes of similar woe and pain earlier in the film.

Here I have spared you the mind-bending visage of the charming young moppet they found to play Beane’s daughter. She is so distractingly un-Pitt that I have chosen to hide her face.

Where this film falters most is in a place that is fairly well-meaning. Billy Beane is a “weekend dad”. The one scene we get, which is all we need, to explain his relationship to his daughter’s mom and step-father is perfect. You can tell that Beane cares more about what his daughter thinks of him than anything else, even losing. Though the time spent on his relationship with her is far less substantial than other elements of the story, it is one of the strongest threads and the ending completely relies on it. This is where the faltering comes in. It’s not a clear enough through-line from the big Red Sox offer, the validation Beane has been waiting for and the real shot at “changing the game” that he claimed to want earlier. Because the film dwells on the decision, which is really affected by everything we’ve learned about the guy up to this point, the “why” of his declining the Red Sox deal should be much more clear. I can’t think that the writers meant for this to be ambiguous but the only clear reasoning is that moving to Boston takes him away from his daughter, and this seems supported by that the film ends on Beane driving around to do some thinking (a habit of his) and listening to a song she recorded. It’s precocious as all hell and shouldn’t work but it does, especially on me for obvious reasons.

Ultimately this is a minor misstep and not one I am even sure isn’t less mistakenly ambiguous and odd as I’m making it sound. That this decision might ultimately be about his daughter seems natural but not entirely earned, perhaps leaving the audience feeling a bit of a disconnect like “wait, wasn’t this about baseball? wasn’t this exactly what Beane wanted?”. I think some people will leave the theater arguing whether or not, in the end, Beane was being a bit of a fool. It’s a weird way to end a film that is so laser-focused on its subject. Again though, this is an instance where others mileage will vary significantly. I just found the daughter song ending a bit clunky.

Still, it’s one off beat in a movie that is consistently on.

Billy Beane is a complicated guy.