Take my review of Moneyball with a grain of salt. Its two-and-a-quarter-hour running time probably rivals the aggregate amount of professional baseball I've watched over the past three years – which is to say, not much. I'm not the target audience for any sports flick, but a great cast delivering an Aaron Sorkin script put me in the seats. On that level, Moneyball delivers.
Sorkin has a knack for finding the humanity in black and white statistics. It's in part what made his telling of Facebook's success story (last year's brilliant, brainy The Social Network) so remarkable. A fitting – if inferior – follow-up, Moneyball is as much about business as it is about baseball. In fact, the thesis of author Michael Lewis, upon whose book Sorkin and co-writer Steven Zaillian sculpted the screenplay, is that victory on the field can be reduced to mere mathematics.
Enter Brad Pitt as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane. After being creamed in the playoffs, many of his star players pick up contracts with teams with deeper pockets. The truth as Beane puts it is that baseball is a fundamentally unfair game. Affluent teams can afford the best players, and subsequently win the most games and the most championships. But rather than accept the status quo, Beane hires Yale grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), and cooks up a way to build a team around underrated but undesirable players, like a pitcher with unorthodox form and a ex-star pushing 40.
"We're card counters now," Beane explains to his mystified staff. Moneyball plays almost like a heist – and cheating any flawed system is exhilarating to watch. The problems stem from elsewhere; the movie drags in its second half, lacking the concise narrative momentum of fiction. It's a problem from which many biopics suffer, and though Sorkin fares better than most, he doesn't have a David Fincher behind the lens this time around.
Granted, director Bennett Miller is no slouch, having made his Oscar-nominated Hollywood debut with Capote in 2005. With Moneyball, Miller faithfully photographs Sorkin and Zaillian's script, but never elevates it. Pitt and Hill are empathetic underdogs, and their performances convey admirable depth. Still, even in their best moments, it's hard not to wish that more weren't going on onscreen.
Moneyball also gets bogged down by superfluous subplots like flashbacks to Beane's fizzled pro baseball career and his relationship with his twelve-year-old daughter. The sequences give insight into the inner workings of the character's mind, but seldom feel relevant to the main thrust of the plot. Especially when they beget a string of false endings that has the audience on the edge of their seats in the worst sense of the term.
Those scenes don't sink Moneyball, but they somewhat stifle its potential for greatness. The fascinating premise, that computers can pick winners better than we can, is partially buried under content far less novel. I've seen enough strained father/daughter relationships, thanks. The film would likewise run thinner and healthier without Beane's trips down memory lane.
But it still works. Probably the best indication of the film's merit is that it appeals to viewers with no vested interest in the sport. At its finest, Moneyball is about the deconstruction of baseball romanticism, with a straightforward exchange of ideas that feels almost documentary at times. Surprisingly enough, it's the conventional storytelling devices that feel sluggish, unexciting, and repetitive. Not the baseball.