Nobody cares about baseball until October, and nobody has remembered “Moneyball” since 2011. It’s a well-crafted, encapsulating gem of sports history, with tactful performances from Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and luscious cinematography from Wally Pfister. But “Moneyball” failed to grab a seat near “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” in the great ball movie bleachers, simply because there is no emotional arc guiding “Moneyball’s” lead characters.
We follow Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) at the onset of a new millennium. His star players have set sail from the Bay Area for deeper contracts in Boston and New York harbors, with Beane now doomed to fail in his quest of securing top notch talent with a paltry $40 million payroll. Beane voyages to Cleveland to have a meeting with the Indians’ General Manager and his staff to see what players they’d be willing to trade.
It’s the type of meeting that could have been done over the phone (and is done via phone later in the movie), but this Cleveland encounter is meant to establish Beane being well-liked in baseball, and introduces us to Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a special assistant who looks like he’s never played a sport in his life but understands all the cloaked schematics and hidden digits lurking behind baseball’s seam. Billy “buys” Brand, and adopts a new data-driven philosophy to recruiting players and guiding the A’s to hopeful greatness.
Beane and Brand enthusiastically recruit random new guys, tragically cut some beloved players, watch as the philosophy fails, then succeeds, then fails again. The movie closes with Beane listening to his daughter giving some obvious, Lenka-inspired exposition on his character struggle as she sings “JUST ENJOY THE SHOW,” that winning isn’t everything and we should enjoy the game of life. And while the closing credits tell us the data-driven approach was a success, with the Boston Red Sox cashing in in 2004 with their iconic World Series win, we can’t help but wonder “Wa$ it $cience that gave Bo$ton a $erie$ win, or $omething el$e?”
We initially feel satisfied after viewing “Moneyball,” appearing to have all the required nuts and bolts of a touchstone Oscar film. But then we think back to Beane, Brand and the family members and players’ names we can’t remember, and wonder just what exactly was the emotion guiding Beane or Brand in this movie? Beane is literally the same person at the end of the film than he is at the beginning. His prime motive remains to win, and at no point does Beane show any sort of growth. The last minute song from his daughter doesn’t show his character is changing, but how he will always remain the same, despite his recognition of the need for change.
Brand too feels no different about baseball, his new boss or his life in general by season’s end. You could argue Beane adopting Brand’s philosophy is him evolving as a character, but it only speaks to the same desperation guiding him since the first frame: he will do whatever it takes to win, even if it’s trusting the word of Jonah Hill to get there.
The movie is also muddled with flashbacks to Beane’s past career as a ballplayer, touted as a once-in-a-lifetime talent who couldn’t get comfortable on the field. These flashbacks are supposed to illuminate a deeper part of Beane’s psyche or speak to the current day’s events. But they’re just a random mishmash of memories that don’t elaborate on Beane but reveal a more profound truth on “Moneyball” itself: Beane had all the right moves but was unsure of himself as a player, just as “Moneyball” looks like a great movie but is unsure what it’s actually trying to say.