Bennett Miller’s Moneyball opens with a black screen and a seemingly pertinent quote. The words suggest the significance of baseball—the nostalgia surrounding the game and its relationship to American culture—and, even more, the film to follow. They make us think we’re about to watch something exciting, something important. Unfortunately, Moneyball isn’t interesting enough. It isn’t deep enough. And in the end, it doesn’t achieve its goals.
Based on the gripping 2003 book of the same name, the film centers on Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his impact on baseball, and specifically on the implementation of a mathematical approach to the game. But despite the stellar cast—Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman—the story never pulls us in and makes us care.
Early on, it’s fascinating to hear Hill’s Peter Brand, assistant to Beane, introduce the new baseball system and consider its effect on the game, but that’s nothing ESPN couldn’t do better on television. And it’s only a very small part of the film anyway. Miller, working with a script from Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, seems most interested in using baseball as a backdrop for the study of Beane. But even after spending two hours with him, we still don’t know or care about the guy.
Miller uses flashbacks to try to develop Beane’s character, but these scenes—portraying him as a child and eventually a professional player—simply don’t work. They feel contrived, uneven and don’t connect to the main storyline, especially the finale. In fact, they only tell us two things: that Beane failed as a player in the big leagues and that he wants to make up for it by winning a World Series as a GM.
This is as far as we see into Beane, but it nevertheless sets up what many continue to call an underdog story, in which one man supposedly goes against the odds and changes the game. But Beane doesn’t have the same sort of incentives of a real underdog like, say, the title character of Rudy. Rudy wanted to live out a childhood dream and make his family proud. Beane wants nothing more than to make a name for himself. And in all of this struggle, he has nothing to lose, except for perhaps his pride. So even if he is technically an underdog, he’s certainly not the most sympathetic one.
Beane’s character keeps Moneyball from ever becoming the big, moving film that it tries so hard to be. In the end, Beane never changes—only his circumstances do. Thus, there’s nothing at stake, and moreover no sort of moral or spiritual implications to his character or the story. We’re simply left with a guy who finally gets what he wants. It’s as if the whole story exists for Miller to tell us that the ultimate goal of life is personal happiness, regardless of whom or what we hurt and neglect to achieve it. And despite being portrayed as the little man, Beane does in fact dehumanize his players and coaches—treating them as mere numbers—to make his system work.
Moneyball could have been so much more. But it’s not.