Moneyball is a movie about baseball...but it's not a sports movie.
Grouping the latest film from star Brad Pitt with heartwarming Americana it-all-comes-down-to-the-big-game films doesn't quite make sense—no matter how much Pitt looks like Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. Moneyball is an underdog tale of a different kind one that questions the enchantment of the game rather than embraces it. While a film driven by sports statistics and business may sound drab Moneyball manages to discover its own unique sentimentality thanks to strong performances and a restrained style.
We pick up with Billy Beane (Pitt) GM for the Oakland A's after yet another disastrous season. Surrounded by aging scouts convinced of their ability to hone in on a player's intangible skills the keen manager grapples with the loss of his best players a recruiting budget dwarfed by his competitors and no solution in sight. After all baseball is a game of the coin—buy the talent buy the wins buy the championship. Wheeling and dealing across the country Beane realizes the A's need a new strategy or they'll be forever at the bottom. He finds that innovation in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) a statistics wiz who introduces Beane to the baseball equivalent of counting cards: the theory of sabermetrics.
Thankfully watching and enjoying Moneyball doesn't require an extensive background in math as Beane allows the stuffy subdued Brand do the number-crunching. Much like writer Aaron Sorkin's Oscar-winning The Social Network the script (co-written with Schindler's List and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo writer Steve Zallian) pulls back the curtain on a complicated process but makes it easily digestible and more importantly emotional. Beane puts his job and reputation on the line for Brand's theory which boils down to the idea that all you need to win a baseball game is runs. Who needs star players when MLB rejects can make it to home base?
Pitt's depiction of the real life Beane isn't a showy star performance—but it's one of his best to date. The character is reserved and hushed; he explodes when the gravity of his situation hits a boiling point but quickly pulls himself back into professional mode. In order for Beane to enact Brand's plan he has to de-romanticize a game that means everything to him. Beane goes to great lengths to remind himself that baseball can't be fun—he doesn't watch the games he commands his team to hear the sorrow-filled silence of a loss and he emphasizes that no matter how many games he wins the only one that matters is the last. Beane keeps this light and cool with his co-workers but underneath—where Pitt shines—he struggles.
While Moneyball is Pitt's show his ensemble of co-stars deliver equally impressive work. Hill plays against type keeping his usual fast-talking humor in his back pocket and letting the larger-than-life Pitt properly wow him. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears briefly as the A's manager Art Howe who butts heads with Beane over the direction of the team. What could have been a surface-level villainous role is elevated by Hoffman who makes the old school way of thinking sound perfectly reasonable.
The film directed by the Oscar-nominated Bennett Miller (Capote) is slow and methodical paving the way for exhilarating moments between Pitt and Hill as they juggle phone calls fire off statistics educate their players and compile the misfit team. Miller intertwines flashbacks of Beane's early career and real life footage into the main narrative capitalizing on a variety of filmmaking techniques that organically stem from Beane's perspectives. This isn't squeaky clean Hollywood filmmaking but it's slick. Mychael Danna's score stands out as a thrilling companion to the visuals ethereal tunes that add a touch of humanity to a bookish drama.
Moneyball isn't this year's Field of Dreams or The Natural or Little Big League but it is great drama. Compelling and sweet the film takes a relatively unknown aspect of a well-known sport and turns it into something grand. Baseball's always made for a great life metaphor but Moneyball shows us one we've never seen before.
After being bullied for the umpteenth time by the kids from the neighborhood pint-sized 10-year-old Lucas (voiced by Zachary Tyler) mindlessly takes out his aggression on an ant colony by hosing it down with water. Turns out he just opened Pandora’s Box because the six-legged pests are tired of being bullied themselves. When Lucas goes to sleep the chief wizard of the colony Zoc (voiced by Nicolas Cage) spearheads a plan to sneak into the boy’s room and zap him with a potion that cuts him down to size; when Lucas awakens he’s no longer just figuratively an ant. For his repeated ant offenses Lucas must stand trial before the Queen Ant (voiced by Meryl Streep) who sentences him to live and coexist with the very creatures he formerly terrorized. While Zoc is wary of his new colony-mate Zoc’s girlfriend Hova (voiced by Julia Roberts) tries instead to keep Lucas out of harm’s way (frogs dragonflies etc.) and teach him about understanding different creatures and the meaning(s) of life. A-List doesn’t always mean A-game. Despite some of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars comprising the Bully cast there’s not a whole lot of spirit and only two actors Paul Giamatti as a nefarious exterminator and Cage have distinguishable enough voices for animation. In a movie aimed exclusively towards tots some of the casting just doesn’t figure. Take Streep: While clearly a supreme actress her voice just doesn’t quite register and is a six-year-old going to stand up and shout “Mommy mommy! It’s the Sophie's Choice lady!”? But there are solid performances with Giamatti as usual turning in the best. (Now there’s an actor meant to be cartooned!) Cage is also always a safe bet and doesn’t disappoint here. But Roberts in her much-hyped first post-birth role is well nurturing and soothing to young Lucas but there’s just nothing exciting about her; she’s just…there. Which completely sums up the rest of the cast which includes Regina King Lily Tomlin et al. The Ant Bully is based on a bedtime story (written by John Nickle) that producer Tom Hanks used to read to his kids—it might help lull your little ones to sleep too. Hanks and Co. enlisted the help of director John A. Davis (of Jimmy Neutron fame) who also adapted the screenplay. Davis on occasion offers gorgeous visuals but sadly there’s just not much new here in the ever-growing world of animated features. The themes are decidedly unsubtle—which given the target audience is probably intentional but even the youngest of young might find Bully too rudimentary. And it begs the question: Wasn’t this precise concept while thematically different much more groundbreaking and visually striking when shot in live action for Honey I Shrunk the Kids…in 1989?! Needless to say despite a few fun moments for kids the only genius here comes courtesy of whomever decided to sandwich the release date to fall between Monster House and Barnyard.