By Ray Bennett
TORONTO – “Moneyball” is very much about baseball, a traditional sports yarn about trying to beat the odds, but it is much more about family, breaking with tradition and economics, and it allows Brad Pitt to show again that he is not only a movie star but also an actor of substance.
Fans of America’s favourite pastime will like the film but you don’t need to know much about baseball to enjoy it with Pitt’s confident and engaging presence at the heart of the tale of the Oakland A’s most extraordinary season.
Based on a book by Michael Lewis that shook the foundations of the sport, “Moneyball” relates the uphill struggle of a failed player named Billy Beane, now a general manager, to turn a small market team into a championship contender. To do that, he employs the determination he learned when his fabulous entry into baseball turned to ruins because in the event, as the old-timers said, “he just didn’t have what it takes”.
His experience leaves Beane with the deep conviction that the smartest talent scouts are like weather forecasters in that they don’t really know anything. He encounters a young man named Peter Brand who uses the economic insights of an unsung baseball wizard named Bill James to analyse the actual delivery of players rather than be dazzled by their star appeal and best performances.
Brand is an over-weight and shy Yale graduate whose number crunching computer skills make a fine match for Beane’s intuition, and Jonah Hill plays the part with such acute observation that he is the perfect foil for Pitt.
Scenes between the two of them, and as partners forced to combat entrenched veterans of the game are crafted so that the insiders’ knowledge of baseball is made perfectly clear and the scenes become punctuated with rich moments of comedy. Beane’s world is all about assessing players and making trades, and with Brand’s help he assembles a team of rejects – “an island of misfits” – whose track records show they can function as a unit to achieve more success than a few superstar individualists.
Soccer fans everywhere will be right at home with the cut and thrust of team-building having been held in thrall by the recent pre-season transfer period. Football leagues around the world face exactly the dilemma that faces the Oakland A’s in the film – how do smaller teams that cannot pay big transfer fees and outlandish salaries compete with the wealthy likes of Manchester United, Barcelona and Inter Milan?
Football has seen situations like the one that faces Beane, and while baseball fans will know the outcome of the season in which the A’s strived toward an amazing winning streak in their drive for the pennant, for many international moviegoers, the payoff will be a suspenseful revelation.
Director Bennett Miller gives the film a steady pace rather than the frantic stuff of typical sports pictures while cinematographer Wally Pfister makes all the baseball action clear and Miller’s regular composer Mychael Danna provides a nimble score free of sports film clichés. It also helps that Beane does not like to actually watch games and often likes to go for a drive, and so the distance makes it easer for the uninitiated.
The script is credited to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and it suffers from the “Social Network” Oscar-winner’s determination to make everyone sound the same. But it mostly works, and Pitt has some warm and funny moments with Kerris Dorsey as his guitar-playing daughter Casey, and a couple of lucid scenes with Robin Wright as his ex-wife. Scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman as veteran coach Art Howe, however, lack much spark because while Hoffman has all the right body language and expression, he’s given nothing significant to say.
It’s Pitt’s movie and he moves through it with grace and charm, and a good deal of expertise in unexpected line-readings. He and Hill make an unlikely but highly entertaining double act.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival. US release, Sept. 23 Columbia Pictures; UK release Nov. 25, Sony Pictures; Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright; Director: Bennett Miller; Screenwriters: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin; Story by: Stan Chervin; Based on the book by Michael Lewis; Producers: Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz, Brad Pitt; Director of photography: Wally Pfister; Production designer: Jess Gonchor; Music: Mychael Danna; Editor: Christopher Tellefsen; Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone; Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Mark Bakshi, Andrew Karsch, Sidney Kimmel; Production companies: Scott Rudin Productions, Michael De Luca Productions; No rating, runs 143 minutes.
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