We’ve all heard that old cliché about the character actor trapped inside a leading man’s body. But that doesn’t quite apply to Brad Pitt. He’s something rarer: For most of his career, Pitt’s actually been too good-looking to even be taken seriously as a leading man.
He’s rebelled against it mightily, playing all manner of freaks and gypsies and even, in one truly ill-advised project, the embodiment of death. But he’s actually been at his best when he’s stopped worrying and embraced the hotness. In Fight Club, he was a fantasy projection—the coolest, sexiest, most bad-ass chick-magnet alive. In Ocean’s Eleven, his good looks gave his character a kind of perpetually amused insouciance. In Legends of the Fall, he was a full-on swoon-worthy romantic hero.
But Brad Pitt is 48 years old now and, while he’s still a beautiful man, he’s got some wrinkles, some bags under his eyes and, unfairly or not, it gives him a new depth. He’s so not much turning into a silver fox, a la his buddy George Clooney—instead, his current looks represent a kind of dissipated youth, a faded glory. All of which makes him perfect to play Billy Beane in the great new Moneyball—and why he’ll be almost a lock for his first Best Actor nomination and, if there’s any justice, a strong contender to win.
For those not acquainted with Moneyball, it’s based on book written by Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, about how he took on the deeply ingrained conventional wisdom of Major League Baseball—and trust me when I say, there is no conventional wisdom more ingrained than that of professional baseball—and darn near won a championship.
Beane was a player himself, a highly touted prospect who didn’t pan out—and that’s what gives his character a touch of sadness around the edges. Beane is cocky, a hustler, a rebel of sorts—but he has tasted bitter disappointment. And not just in baseball: His ex-wife has remarried (to the kind of sensitive New Age type who wears leather sandals and white linen pants; Beane himself wears a sun visor and spits chewing tobacco) and he doesn’t see his beloved tweenage daughter as much as he would like.
As the film starts, Oakland has just lost the Divisional Playoffs to the Yankees and, to make matters worse, they are about to be gutted for parts, losing their best players— Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon—to the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively. Beane begs his owner for more money—his team’s budget is a fraction of what the big boys have to work with—but there’s simply no extra money to be had.
The A’s seem doomed to be American League cellar dwellers, until Beane meets a geeky young baseball mind named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who has a radical theory about how teams are put together. The most important, and underappreciated stat, says Brand, is on-base-percentage and there are lots of players to be had on the cheap who are very good at getting on base.
Moneyball, which was directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) and written by the dream team of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, gets the details of baseball just right. The scenes of Beane interacting with his scouts positively bristle with authority—every blunt haircut and polyester shirt, every rejection of a player because his girlfriend is unattractive (“means he has no self-confidence”), every long-held assumption that these guys cling to for dear life, feels authentic. Which is what makes it so satisfying when Beane brings the kid into a meeting and has him try to explain his wonky, new-fangled ideas to these baseball lifers. (An almost unrecognizable Phillip Seymour Hoffman is perfect as the A’s skeptical and perpetually annoyed manager Art Howe.)
At its heart, Moneyball is an odd couple buddy film—and the chemistry between Hill and Pitt is a beautiful thing to behold: An alpha stud meets a kid who was clearly picked last in gym class (but knows he’s the smartest guy in the room). To his credit, Hill doesn’t ham it up at all—it’s funny when he tries to act like the kind of guy who feels comfortable around jocks (a failed high five, for example), but organically so.
Moneyball is insiderish, whip-smart, rousing entertainment. But it does have its flaws. For one, truth is not always as magical as fiction: The A’s never do win the big one. (The film’s Rocky moment, if you will, comes when the team goes on a really long winning streak.) Also, the final 20 minutes or so drags a bit. There’s a scene where Beane gets a sitting with Red Sox owner John Henry—overlooking Fenway Park, which is filmed like some sort of baseball shrine (Henry himself is treated like a demigod)—that goes on way too long. (Me suspects that at least one of the filmmakers is a diehard member of Red Sox Nation).
Still, I certainly don’t want to quibble. Moneyball is not just a great baseball movie, it’s a great movie, period—the cinematic equivalent of a five-tool player.