No matter how many statistics, ‘Moneyball’ doesn’t add up

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

I think I know what’s wrong with “Moneyball.”

Unlike what happens on screen — Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane computerizes his way to a winning team — the stats don’t add up.

For those who don’t live and die by the boys of summer, here’s a better explanation of what Beane (well-played by Brad Pitt) did. He hired a computer whiz (Jonah Hill) to apply “Sabermetrics” to building a team.

Translation: nothing about a player mattered to Beane except for how he came across statistically. As in, his ability to get on base.

Going on the advice of his in-house computer wizard, Beane hired underappreciated — and more importantly — underpaid players, regardless of their tired legs (David Justice at 36, say) or bad reps off the field or whatever.

It was an unadorned by-the-numbers approach. And it worked.

Where “Moneyball” goes wrong is that the writers, Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian (both have a streak of latter-day Paddy Chayevsky), don’t, in their heart of hearts, believe that baseball is a paint-by-number game — no matter how many statistics freaks there are whose greatest pleasure is poring over ERA’s.

I don’t think director Bennett Miller, who showed us the human side of Truman Capote in 2005’s “Capote” believes it either. Not even Pitt, who gives a classic edging-into-middle-age star turn (and whose life can be ruled by box office numbers) buys it.

The picture pitches the idea of the romance of baseball, a boys’ game for a handful of very lucky men. It repeatedly makes the point that everybody has to stop playing eventually…some at 18, others at 38. These are the numbers at the heart of baseball, not the numbers on a computer screen, no matter how groundbreaking their use might be.

Another crucial misstep: the ruinous casting of Hill. A sometimes good actor, (pretty amazing, actually, in the indie “Cyrus”), Hill is now a reformed-fatty. Like Seth Rogen before him, he lost a ton of weight, — though that still doesn’t make him leading man material.

He’s still heavy in “Moneyball” and he’s supposed to be half of an odd couple (sometimes, he and Pitt seem to be in the middle of a bromance). Hill simply isn’t immediately likable on screen. We mostly respond to his work and his work in “Moneyball” mostly consists of being a fat, isolated computer nerd whose underlying brilliance wasn’t appreciated until Billy Beane came along.

And please, believe me, it’s not just a matter of looks. Hoffman, hardly a beauty, has a smaller part in “Moneyball” and if he’d been cast in Hill’s role, he would’ve run off with the film. He’s the wrong age now for a 20something Yale grad, but seeing him reminds you how oddly appealing – even sexy — he could be, despite his lumpen frame.

And not even a generous star like Pitt wants to be upstaged by a character man. Especially when he’s Oscar hunting.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

1 reply
  1. caesar's_ghost says:

    “Moneyball” is as much about economics as it is about baseball. Bean started with an assumption, the teams that spend the most on their roster do not win the world series most of the time. Reaching the conclusion that talent pricing was conducted irrationally and inefficiently, he tasked Paul Depodesta with searching through mounds of data about major league baseball teams to answer the question, ” What are the attributes that appear in the statistics of winning teams?” He then looked for an edge in assembling a team capable of achieving winning statistical performance at the lowest cost, which Beane realized was the precise amount his owners were willing to spend.

    The complexity of baseball at the highest level makes this a story about how to be the most efficient gambler in a “game for pastoral minds”, as George Will once described the national pastime. Surely enough meat for a good movie.Report

    Reply

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