DVD Drop: Major league
Brad Pitt hits it out of the park with Moneyball -- available on video this week
Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball" (Sony Pictures)
When people complain that Hollywood doesn't make movies like it used to, they're not really complaining that cinema has evolved into something new and unrecognizable; they're looking nostalgically back to the movies they watched when they were younger. And it's not all movies, mind you; it's a specific sort of movie -- one that told a simple story in an uncomplicated fashion and allowed for a little glamour along the way. They're talking about the kind of movie that makes you feel good about movies in general.
That's the entire rationale behind the Oscar push for "The Artist," that silent film you've been hearing about for months now. But it could also just as easily be applied to another recent release which made first contact with Canadian audiences last fall at TIFF: Bennett Miller's "Moneyball," a crowd-pleaser that tells a straightforward story in an accessible manner without ever pandering to the audience or the material. It is exactly the sort of movie the major studios have stopped making.
Based on the book by Michael Lewis, "Moneyball" tells the story of Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A's, and his efforts to pull his struggling ball club out of the basement over the 2002 season. Hampered by one of the smallest budgets in baseball, Beane and a team of statisticians hit upon a brilliant new strategy of hiring affordable, reliable players who may not have been household names or power hitters, but would reliably get on base for a large percentage of their times at bat.
That doesn't sound terribly interesting, does it? But screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin reframe it in dramatic terms; it's an underdog story, and it's a sports story, but it's also about the way ideas can change a culture. (That's a theme it shares with Sorkin's last screenplay, "The Social Network.") And married to the story of the A's is the story of Beane himself, who peaked too soon as a player but couldn't bring himself to leave baseball, suddenly offered the chance to change the game in a way he never could from the field.
That's where "Moneyball" gets its real dramatic weight -- through Beane, and through Brad Pitt, who gives the character the full force of his considerable charisma. Pitt rarely lets himself be a movie star these days; the "Ocean's" movies are behind him, and you're more likely to see him immersed in a character like Benjamin Button or the father in "The Tree of Life." Here, though, there's no makeup or period wardrobe to hide behind; Beane's just a regular guy with an ex-wife (Robin Wright) and a teenage daughter (Kerris Dorsey), trying to get his bosses to go for something they don't fully understand. He's charming as hell, but then he'd have to be.
Pitt's presence also creates a fun dynamic with Jonah Hill, who plays Beane's assistant Peter Brand -- a composite character -- as a numbers geek with an unexpected backbone. Hill's been working his way up in movies for the better part of the last decade, but he's still a newbie next to Pitt, and the two actors turn their unlikely chemistry into "Moneyball's" most rewarding subplot. Zaillian and Sorkin don't make the mistake of giving Beane a girfriend to make him more audience-friendly -- they're smarter than that, and the character doesn't have time for one anyway -- but they do manage to tuck an odd little love story into their movie, and it's the connection between Beane and Brand.
Miller makes sure the peripheral characters are fleshed out, too -- "Parks and Recreation's" Chris Pratt gets a great role as Scott Hatteberg, one of the players Beane and Brand put their faith behind, and Philip Seymour Hoffman hits just the right dismissive and defensive notes as A's coach Art Howe, who's too invested in baseball's star system (and his own place at the bottom of it) to get on board. Their stories play out in tiny flashes as the larger plot moves forward, with deeply satisfying payoffs.
Anyway, if that doesn't sell you on "Moneyball," I don't know what will. No, it's not quite the rousing baseball picture it was sold as, but a pretty satisfying piece of major-studio storytelling just the same. Turns out they do make them like they used to, after all.
E-mail Norman Wilner at firstname.lastname@example.org