Hey kids, do you like baseball? Then you’re going to love math.
That’s sort of the hook of Moneyball, the true-life account of how embracing cold, hard numbers over gut instinct made for the creation of a pretty damn good sports team. It’s not only a rare look into what goes on behind the curtain in making baseball actually happen (indeed, the scenes that take place in offices and conference rooms outweigh the scenes that take place on the field) but also a movie that manages to make math look like fun.
Well, maybe “fun” is too strong a word, but Moneyball definitely makes a case for at least paying attention in your statistics class.
Thankfully, though, Moneyball isn’t so much a contemplation on the importance of your multiplication tables as it is an old-fashioned redemption tale. Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the near-bankrupt Oakland Athletics, is himself a failed ball player, a man driven to prove to the world that he can at least see one thing through to a triumphant end. He realizes he has to completely change the game if his team has a chance at competing with the other Major League players, at least on the recruitment side. And change the game he does, with a scheme that’s seemingly so far-fetched and outrageous, so brazen in its shunning of good old-fashioned baseball traditions, that you get a sense that there’s no way it couldn’t have worked.
Beane’s partner in his vision quest is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a statistics whiz kid who conjures up a method to choose A-list (pun intended) potential players based on simple numbers. The theory is that alone these players aren’t much, but together as a team they’ll be an “Island of Misfit Toys” that will win games. The impatient, desperate Beane jumps into this plan head-first, ready to try anything — and anxious to show up the old-timer scouts who think they’re both crazy for trying to change something that’s “worked for years.”
And change it they do, conjuring a group of players that win a whopping twenty games in a row. True, the A’s never won the World Series, but still, that’s pretty damn impressive for a team that was previously about one dollar from ceasing to exist.
As awe-inspiring as the Athletics end up being, Pitt and Hill make for the best team in Moneyball, their victories off the field as exciting and cheer-worthy as any other more traditional kind of triumph in a sports movie. They’re a terrific odd couple, with Pitt’s nervous energy and sly sense of humor mixing nicely with Hill’s understated and often quietly bewildered numbers man. In fact, this might be Hill’s best performance to date — he does wonders with his reactionary role, much the same way that Andrew Garfield did as the increasingly exasperated Eduardo in The Social Network.
Moneyball isn’t quite as “big” or “relevant” as director Bennett Miller would like to believe it is. The film seems to want to serve as an iconic example of how one should forget the past and embrace the future, or as an extended metaphor for the importance of embracing change and thinking outside of the box. However, Beane’s story is actually more personal and humble than that, and one that’s in and of itself worth telling outside of any more “universal” context — when the film is focused on him and the little details of his seemingly insurmountable task (which, thankfully, is usually) rather than trying to “say something,” Moneyball is a fascinating character study, one that more often than not trumps its own loftier ambitions.