Directed by Bennett Miller
By Armond White
Five decades after Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, we still suffer the delusion that men who play professional baseball enjoy the sport. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball exists to prove that America’s favorite pastime is subject to the same greed, envy, anguish and disappointment as any other corrupt American institution.
Leave it to pseudo intellectuals like Miller (who perpetrated the hideous Capote, not the emotive, funny Capotesque Infamous), smart-ass screenwriters Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and poseur-producer Scott Rudin to take all the fun out of baseball. Moneyball is a sequel to last year’s dispirited but slick The Social Network: It uses the real-life story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics ball club and his 2002 strategy to beat the overly financed New York Yankees, to demystify American ambition. (Beane piously gives up a $12.5m offer to manage the Boston Red Sox.)
Moneyball is also an Indie-movie metaphor and flush with Indie pretenses; Bennett implies that pyrrhic victory is greater than the satisfaction of doing what one loves and trains for. His glum sanctification of Billy Beane is a peculiar kind of B.S. (not far from his defamation of Truman Capote’s success). All that makes this perverse riches-to-hairshirt tale interesting is Brad Pitt’s glamorous presence. As Beane, Pitt acquiesces to the pretense that athleticism and success (the proof of achievement and appreciation) are meaningless. Pitt must have learned this lie from Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans caper films.
Bennett, Zaillian, Sorkin and Rudin’s caper reduces baseball to a numbers game (“Your goals should be buying wins. Baseball thinking is medieval”). They defeat old-fashioned patriotic romanticism. Their con job wagers that audiences love cynical dialogue and loser desolation–the same TV pretense that made The Social Network both overrated and unpopular.
Just as The Social Network glorified Mark Zuckerberg’s insensitivity, Moneyball glorifies Beane’s anti-heroism. His loser status is sentimentalized yet rigged because Pitt–a bonafide movie star–distracts from the nonsense that the filmmakers are trying to pitch. Flashbacks to Beane’s own failed career as a ballplayer are meant to explain why he opposes his tradition-minded staff. Bennett never conveys Beane’s love of sport, prowess or Pitt’s enjoyment of pretty-boy privilege.
Pitt isn’t yet enough of an actor to ace the average jock bravado that Paul Newman captured in Slap Shot, Nick Nolte in North Dallas Forty and Blue Chips and Bernie Mac in Mr. 3000, Mark Wahlberg in Invincible. Or even, Tom Cruise’s money-minded nice-guyness in Jerry Maguire. It’s rare for actors to delineate an athlete’s physical assurance; Pitt doesn’t even try. His Billy Beane is a beer-belly characterization by a pin-up (while Philip Seymour Hoffman as a disapproving coach congratulates the audience’s appreciation of his own obvious acting).
In Moneyball, Pitt stands in for working class blandness–an implausible Indie hoax. Miller is such an obvious, anti-erotic nerd (the film looks b&w even though it’s in color) that he totally evades baseball’s Pleasure, Tension and Sunshine–it’s All-American sensuality. Miller and team undermine Pitt’s Everyman effort (as when Beane defies the maxim “Nobody reinvents this game!”) simply by refusing to let the game be played on screen. Instead, there are long shots of walking, dour memories of Beane’s rookie years and repetitive protestations: “We’re being gutted” and “It’s an unfair game.” As usual, Miller mistakes glum for profound.
Moneyball may be the most cynical baseball movie every made. Denying baseball’s kinetics, it also rejects Bernard Malamud’s Americanizing identity myth in the novel The Natural. This is a nerd’s revenge: name-checking real-life athletes, fake-scrutinizing the game’s economics and ending with Pitt’s close-up shakey-cam tears in order to exploit the current national sense of hopelessness. Tom Hanks’ humanistic Larry Crowne wasn’t cynical enough to seem hip. The profit-based self-righteousness of Moneyball is Recession-ready.