Brad Pitt’s version of real life baseball manager Billy Beane (that’s his name), which powers Sony’s Moneyball, hates losing more than he wants to win, as he puts it. Unfortunately, this is the movie’s theme, which makes it dreary, joyless and unenjoyable. Watching someone hate losing for two hours and 13 minutes, with not a single moment to indulge in the pleasure of playing baseball, is agonizing. The protagonist of this star vehicle is so busy talking about letting baseball be baseball, liberated from the conformity of a Major League system that drains the game of risk, ability, and independence, that Moneyball (based on the book by Michael Lewis) itself fails to dramatize both making money and baseball.
Despite his outstanding title performance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Brad Pitt’s made a career out of playing these vacant downer types. From Thelma and Louise and Se7en to more recent fare such as the godawful Babel, watching him play another jaded type is old hat, though he does fine as the ex-ballplayer turned manager who tries to remake the Oakland A’s into a winning team based on a cost-efficient approach. But reducing baseball to stats and facts is dull and lifeless in the hands of two writers (Steven Zaillian, who wrote the overrated, lifeless Schindler’s List, and Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the overrated, lifeless The Social Network) who have lifeless down pat. Moneyball is packed with long stretches of silence, the sound of people’s sighs and swallows, and endless navel-gazing about nothing. There’s barely any baseball in a film that purports to be about the love of making money playing ball.
Beane’s been beaten down in life and it shows; his daughter is a 12-year-old who looks more like she’s 37. She writes depressing songs as if she’s Janis Ian. You would too hanging around Pitt’s sad sack of a father. After hitting rock bottom in negotiations, he finds an Ivy League geek (Jonah Hill) to set things right.
Director Bennett Miller (Capote) takes way too long to load the bases. Everything is predictable and, while the business of baseball is potentially fascinating, here it’s played as a false dichotomy between rationalism and going by feelings, tradition and intuition. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays the head coach of the A’s but there is hardly any team to coach as Beane and his hired college nerd make maneuvers and calculate a winning combination. None of the players stands out. Ballgames feel like waiting in an airport security line. There is no sense of play.
There are a few good scenes and decent lines, and, disconnected from the film as a whole, the story of going up against Major League baseball’s establishment has its moments. Certain stretches hold and sustain interest, such as a scene between Pitt and Hill trying to score a key player. But then the talky picture gets back to an unbearably cynical, slow-moving approach. Moneyball poses as if it has something to say, tacking on a point about doing what matters, but it’s mostly talk and no action. In the end it is as empty, obvious and manipulative as a tawdry 50s’ melodrama, banging the moviegoer over the head with pixelated close-ups of players’ faces and the words ‘won’ or ‘lost’ to score points. Billy Beane, whose story may or may not be more interesting than this movie, comes undone in violent outbursts and constantly groans about how it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.
The dull, overly somber Moneyball makes it easier.