[I discuss the conclusion of the film in general terms in this review that may spoil some things but it’s based on reality, people. Life spoiled the ending long before I did.]
Sports movies. No matter how you feel about sports its almost impossible to not get a slight flutter in your stomach when the underdog team wins at the end. No matter how cliche almost every single one is it’s nearly inconceivable to not lean forward in your seat as that slow motion final hit/pass/score revels in its own glory. No matter how jaded you’ve become in life its highly unlikely you don’t give a little shout of hooray when the entire team celebrates their triumphant victory.
But what if your sports movie is about a team that picks players are cold hard numbers? What if they don’t really win at the end? What if your sports movie is about the back office and not the players?
Moneyball is that movie, and it turns out the back office makes for a better sports movie.
If you don’t follow baseball closely the story behind Moneyball is most likely something you hadn’t heard of until you saw the trailer, but the movie is based on one of the most influential sports books in history. In 2002 the teams manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), seemingly went a bit insane and brought in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) to recruit a new roster for the team. Beane and Brand went against the advice of their scouts and years of baseball scouting know how and selected players based off of stats collected and generated from a mathematical equation. The basic premise was to get players who get on base, no matter what other issues they have. This allowed them to recruit quality players that everyone else was passing up on, and they didn’t have to compete with the bigger teams larger budgets.
The A’s were derided and Beane was near to losing his job when the seasoned opened and they started losing, but like all good sports films, things go better — much better. To give you a hint of how much better things got, the year after the 2002 season the Red Sox began using the “moneyball” system and broke the curse of the Bambino later that year.
So you’ve got an underdog team and derided players, it’s the perfect set up for your standard sports film. What Moneyball does so well is completely eschew what you expect from a sports film to instead talk about how a team is built. I don’t think there is an actual baseball game until halfway through the film as the first half is entirely devoted to following Beane and Brand as they build their team. The film also smartly keeps sports in the foreground and personal relationships in the background, but far from making the movie two dimensional this actually helps to develop the characters in a more natural way. Beane’s determination and belief in what he is doing in sports creates a character deeper than any made up love interest could have and it was a smart decision by the filmmakers to not try to shoehorn too much of unnecessary relationships.
It helps that Pitt is perfect for the cocksure Beane (has to be a boost to ones ego to have Brad Pitt cast as you). More surprising is Jonah Hill, who actually delivers a performance instead of a retread of the character he’s been playing since Superbad. Hill can actually act, and while half his lines might be cheesy sports movie lines he delivers them with skill and character that lends them credence. I was surprised to actually be able to see the character he was playing instead of the actor himself and hope that more dramatic roles come along for him.
It turns out that despite the shift of focus and smarter than average screenplay Moneyball is still a sports movie. All those things I mentioned in the beginning of this review happen in this movie, and they happen wonderfully. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as the montages of victory wash across you. But in the end Moneyball is based on a true story, and unfortunately the ending isn’t as happy as it can be. In fact my only real complaint is with reality. Maybe it’s because I’m so ingrained to expect the absolute best at the end of a sports film, but the way Moneyballs concludes just made me feel empty. They try their best to make it seem cheerful, but this is really a sports film with a not so great ending.
Maybe the ending is another reason that Moneyball feels different from most other sports films. Whatever the reason — acting, subject, direction — Moneyball definitely stands above most of the pack. Far more drama than most sports movies, but still packed with all the flavoring you love from even the most cliche of sports films. Moneyball is a rare beast: a sports film that is actually a good film.