Toronto 2011. Bennett Miller's "Moneyball"

Never mind Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and for that matter, Bennett Miller. For the critics, _Moneyball_ is an Aaron Sorkin movie.
David Hudson

"So here's the film batting to be this year's The Social Network," sighs the Guardian's Catherine Shoard. "It's got the whole package: a plot that revolves round a revolutionary bit of computer kit, loads of scenes in which men argue in boardrooms, and a script spritzed with zingers by Aaron Sorkin. But the software in Moneyball — sabermetrics, or the use of data analysis to place a fiscal value on baseball attributes — is a tougher sell than the insta-sexy Facebook, and its potential impact on the world feels a lot less tectonic. Those who enter the cinema unstirred by either the sport or by the joys of stats are unlikely to come out converts."

"The movie is based on the Michael Lewis book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which explained how [Billy] Beane, an ex-big leaguer and GM of the [Oakland] A's, put together a playoff team despite having three of his star players lured away by teams brandishing big bucks." Kirk Honeycutt in the Hollywood Reporter: "He did this not by watching men swing bats or run bases but by looking at reams of statistics that told him which players could produce the most runs while forcing opponents to score the fewest. It's safe to say that few if any GMs today ignore such data."

"Whether or not Hollywood wants to admit it, there's an undeniable parallel between big-studio economics and Major League Baseball, in which the big guys in both fields are split when it comes to making decisions," writes Variety's Peter Debruge. "Old-timers do it for the art, basing their judgments on gut instincts and years of tradition, while a new class of business-school grads crunch the numbers, using statistics to make smart bets. Surely the irony isn't lost on Steven Soderbergh, who developed [Steven] Zaillian's script in a more avant-garde direction, which would have blended documentary-like interviews with dramatic re-creations. And yet the result — which puts the focus back on Beane (Brad Pitt) and the Ivy League-educated wunderkind (Jonah Hill) who helped him rewrite the rules — is plenty artistic with Capote's Bennett Miller at the helm. Without comparing drafts of the screenplay, it would be tricky to say where Zaillian's contributions end and Sorkin's begin, and yet there's no mistaking the latter's touch for electric dialogue."

"The most remarkable thing about Moneyball is just how swiftly it moves along," writes indieWIRE's Eric Kohn. Miller "creates a fully believable universe not only dominated by baseball but defined by it. The script's only major flaw involves the exploration of Beane's troubled family life; occasional moments with his supportive 12-year-old daughter belong in a different, lesser movie."

"[L]ike the Facebook movie, it's also about the difficult birth of an idea," notes the Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth. "And between the two, Sorkin and Miller create a movie that is more rousing than Fincher's film, with a much stronger emotional payoff not just for the audience, but for the characters as well."

"Brad Pitt is watchable and engaging as the fast-talking and committed Billy Beane, adopting his Ocean's 11 quirk of eating and drinking in pretty much every scene," writes Screen's Mark Adams. "Philip Seymour Hoffman (who starred in Miller's Capote) features as the team's shaven-haired coach Art Howe, but is largely wasted in a role that asks him to argue with Bean a little, but spend most of the time in the dugout watching his team."

More from Alex Billington (FirstShowing), Drew McWeeney (HitFix) and Paolo (Film Experience).


Updates: Pitt "plays Beane with the smooth assurance of Robert Redford or Paul Newman," finds Box Office's Pete Hammond. "Baseball movies are hit and miss, but this one is the shrewdest take on the game since Ron Shelton's Bull Durham and it has appeal that reaches beyond the ballpark."

"I think the making of the movie is just as interesting as the movie itself," Pitt tells Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times.

Update, 9/11: Time's Richard Corliss is surprised to find that, after running through so many writers and directors, "the movie doesn't play like the minutes of a fractious board meeting. It's bright and mostly fast. For invigorating stretches it boasts the zinging, stinging repartee of grown men working at a kids' game and tired of being handed the prevailing line of bull." Oh, and "Moneyball bears another similarity to The Social Network: it's largely fictional." He explains.

Updates, 9/14: "Though Michael Lewis's book is full of colorful individuals," notes Noel Murray at the AV Club, "it ultimately advances a theory that holds that individuals and moments matter less than numbers and aggregates. And yet here's Moneyball: The Movie, giving us flashbacks to Beane's disappointing pro baseball career, and inserting humanizing scenes of him hanging out with his pre-teen daughter."

Fandor's Kevin B Lee: "At least Brad Pitt comes off well in his self-produced vehicle, occupying the brilliant-but-tormented protagonist angle with total conviction, masterfully mixing moods of ambition, rage and shame."

"Does it help to be a MLB fan?" asks Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf. "Absolutely. But I'm not one especially, just an appreciator of tough talk and a real plot (for a change)."

Updates, 9/18: "Moneyball takes place less than ten years ago," notes Karina Longworth in Voice Film, "but given the current state of the how-to-save-baseball debate, it might as well depict the Ruth era. The film waits until its post-narrative on-screen titles to admit the tough truth that the argument in favor of moneyball is still lacking supporting evidence. It didn't work for Depodesta's Dodgers (he's since worked for the Padres and the Mets, both losing teams), and it certainly hasn't worked for the A's, who have never made it to the world series under Beane's administration and are currently in second-to-last place in the American League West. Its biggest success story, two-time World Series champs the Red Sox, have plenty of payroll to back their moneyball up. What's remarkable in terms of Miller's movie is how little its limited context seems to matter. In flattening the complexities of this controversial, arguably failed coup, Miller has made not a great baseball movie, but a great movie-movie, a character study wrapped in a sports film which couldn't care less about fulfilling rote sports film mandates. It's not a film about the love of the game; it's a film about the melancholia that goes with loving anything, anyone, and feeling powerless as their savior."

"What's modestly fun to watch," finds Joseph Jon Lanthier at the House Next Door, "is how clearly Sorkin sublimates the rushed, narrative itinerancy of his usually peppy dialogue almost entirely within character motivation."

Update, 9/20: "It's The Bad News Bears for MBAs," suggests New York's David Edelstein. "And Pitt? He's dazzlingly good. He still channels Robert Redford, but it's the right part to channel, the witty understatement, the mastery of the pause-and-stare to suggest the wheels turning in his head."



Updates, 9/21: "There's a battle between clear-eyed observation and narrative cliché in sportswriting, and Moneyball has a foot in both camps," writes David Haglund in Slant. "It provides ammunition for the former side with its intelligent insights about how rational outsiders can sometimes see things more clearly than well-trained insiders. As a gripping read, however, the book largely operates according to the other side's rules. It's no wonder, then, that sports fans who prefer narratives to numbers can see that Moneyball got its overarching storyline — how did Oakland succeed where many teams failed? — wrong. That, I suspect, is why many of them still don't see that it got an even bigger story — the steady rise of smart statistical analysis — right."

"I keep Lewis's book on a shelf next to North Dallas Forty, Peter Gent's tome about his playing days under Cowboys coach Tom Landry," writes Robert Wilonsky in the Voice. "The insider Gent and outsider Lewis tell essentially the same story: Computers do not lie, they do not romanticize, they do not judge…. But North Dallas Forty on the big screen was mean, cold, brutal — a tale of betrayal and violence told from the perspective of the abused player left for dead meat. Moneyball's not like that at all. Perhaps that's because it's a baseball movie, and 'it's hard not to be romantic about baseball,' as Beane says during a rare moment of happiness as the A's become, for a few weeks, the greatest team in the history of the American League. That's thanks to the home-run heroics of a forgotten player given one last chance by Billy Beane. It really happened, it's really corny, and it's really great."

Stephen Garrett in Time Out New York: "Moneyball focuses on the essential issue of baseball and of life: How do you measure human value?"

"Moneyball swings for the fences and hits a triple," writes Kevin Jagernauth at the Playlist.

Kristopher Tapley talks with Miller for HitFix, while Kyle Ryan interviews Jonah Hill for the AV Club.

Updates, 9/23: "Like The Social Network," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, "Moneyball is about a fundamental cultural shift and the rise of the information elite…. There's an unnecessary Sorkin-sounding lecture toward the finish that explains what you already know; for the most part, though, the screenplay obscures huge chunks of exposition through the radio chatter of announcers and listeners. And it gives Mr. Pitt, who hurtles through the movie, a chance to scat like a juiced-up Ella Fitzgerald, working his phones and seemingly every other general manager in the country, as he transforms a new baseball philosophy into action."

Moneyball "has to be described as an example of what Hollywood does best," argues Salon's Andrew O'Hehir.

The Boston Globe's Ty Burr: "In the annals of baseball movies, Moneyball is a weird one — a Zen comedy set in the front office."

"Statistics and their alleged true meaning are at the heart of Moneyball," writes David Denby in the New Yorker, "but it's also one of the most soulful of baseball movies — it confronts the anguish of a tough game."

Lewis's book, notes Bill Weber in Slant, "has properties generally judged inimical to the production of a Brad Pitt vehicle: a total absence of romance, plentiful industry-specific jargon, and worst of all, math. But true to Hollywood's tireless efforts to fit square-peg material into roundish genre niches, this wavering, intermittently smart story of daring to think differently flattens its narrative into formula."

"For a movie that goes out of its way to avoid coming off like a Field of Dreams/The Natural-style sentimentalization of America's (former) favorite pastime," adds Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily, "it's counter-productive to transform a struggle of principle into a vindication of one man struggling to retain his job, be a good father and so on; it's the most solipsistic conquest imaginable. Beane argues for detachment and ignoring received wisdom onscreen, but — numerous spreadsheet montages aside — this turns out be as conservative a baseball film as any, a triumph of the underdog over nothing in particular."

"[T]hankfully, it's no The Blind Side, which was also adapted from a Lewis book," offers Ezra Ace Caraeff in the Stranger.

"Zaillian and Sorkin have mined the text for human stories and hung them, like Christmas ornaments, on the larger arc of the 2002 season," notes JR Jones in the Chicago Reader.

"I walked in knowing what the movie was about, but unprepared for its intelligence and depth," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sports Illustrated's Joe Posnanski explains why seeing Moneyball 'was one of the strangest movie experiences of my life."

"There's an irony embedded in that streak that Moneyball can't bring itself to acknowledge," notes Scott Tobias at the AV Club. "Running off 20 games straight is a statistical anomaly, and should be tossed out along with Beane's own lingering superstitions. Yet the book and the film rebuff the notion that stats geeks can't love the game like the purists, so when the A's enjoy their underdog triumph, it's consistent for the audience to enjoy it, too."

"The marvel is that Miller still keeps you wondering how it will all turn out — because even if you know, you don't really know, at least not in terms of where the story will take Beane." Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek: "The picture has been shot, clearly with great care, by Wally Pfister (who often collaborates with Christopher Nolan but who has also done good, unflashy lens work on pictures like The Italian Job). At certain points, the golden stubble on Pitt's chin is lit as if it were a wheatfield in a Terrence Malick movie. But it all works."

"[W]hile Moneyball hasn't been translated into a feast for nerds," writes Time Out Chicago's Ben Kenigsberg, "it's a moving, well-paced character study, with a detailed sense of the backroom politics of a game that, it turns out, really does favor brains over brawn."

For Slate's Dana Stevens, Moneyball "is a sports movie for people who don't like sports movies."

"This isn't even a sports movie, really," adds Jonathan Kiefer in Faster Times, "it's a business movie, fully automated."

Even so: "People who know baseball will have a very different experience watching Moneyball than the people who don't." Matt Singer explains at IFC.

More explaining from Jonathan Lehman in the New Republic: "Beane and the A's may no longer be winning, and the teams that are defying the odds might be valuing completely different skills than Lewis's book extols, but the basic market principles of Moneyball — oddly ignored in baseball for so long — remain an enduring feature of the sport."

Meantime, Max Linsky has "put together a collection of classic journalism by Moneyball author/erstwhile Slate columnist Michael Lewis. In keeping with the week's theme, we've picked four stories about economics and four on sports, plus one piece that bridges the two: 'The Trading Desk,' Lewis's original article on Billy Beane and the Oakland A's."

Mark Harris talks with Hill for Vulture.

Update, 9/25: Tom Shone gives it an A and lists nine things he "loved about Moneyball."

Moneyball opens wide on September 23. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.

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