As far as sports flicks go, you can’t do much better than Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, a film that deserves mention amongst the greats in its genre — and yeah, that includes the Costner trifecta Tin Cup, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams. While I don’t watch the pic nearly as often as I should, every time I do I’m reminded of its greatness.
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Brad Pitt’s phenomenal performance. Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin’s sharp screenplay. Chris Pratt-as-Scott Hatteberg’s goosebumps-inducing walk-off homer. The collection of amazing character actors, namely Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Brent Jennings, and (briefly) Spike Jonze. That reflective, soul-churning ending.
Such elements are good enough to mask the film’s rudimentary, by-the-numbers storyline revolving around a mishap team that eventually unites and “achieves the impossible,” as the trailers often say. Obviously, Moneyball goes far deeper than that, but ultimately this is an underdog tale. Except, where typical Hollywood underdogs secure that fabled trip to Disneyland, Moneyball’s misfits, including Pitt’s pragmatic (and short-fused) Billy Bean, endure the type of cold, punishing, brutal, hard dose of reality that every sports fan knows all too well.
That’s precisely what makes the pic so engrossing — these underdogs may not reach the summit, but they get closer than they had any right to. And therein lies the beautiful quandary of sports.
Of course, Moneyball’s greatest gift to humanity, aside from those glorious montages, Wally Pfister’s gorgeous cinematography, and Mychael Danna’s superb score — God, I love this film — remains dramatic Jonah Hill.
The popular actor had carved out a niche as either “that guy from Superbad” or “that guy in all of Seth Rogen’s movies,” but truly turned the corner with his largely understated, Oscar-nominated performance as Peter Brand, aka Pete, aka Brad Pitt’s conscious. Pete mostly delivers key bits of exposition and is less a flesh-and-blood character than another cog in Billy Bean’s spiritual journey, but Hill layers his performance in a way that makes Pete — a twitchy, emotionless numbers geek — the most likable (and relatable) personality in the film.
Compare Hill’s equally terrific performance in Superbad, in which he plays a likable foul-mouthed teen —
— with his performance in Moneyball, in which he plays a likable, reserved everyman:
Honestly, who knew the “Ask me about my wiener!” guy in 2006’s Accepted was actually a phenomenal dramatic actor with enough acting panache to go toe-to-toe with Brad Pitt (in one of his most celebrated performances, no less).
There’s a scene late in the film that more or less sums up the core message of Moneyball via a brilliant visual metaphor, but also goes a long way in cementing the bond Billy and Pete forged during their incredible journey together:
This moment only works if the audience truly cares about the characters, and pardon the pun, but I think both actors knock their roles out of the park, which is why the “Pete, you’re a good egg” line always makes me smile.
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Now, Hill has been better in other films, namely Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, perhaps his most iconic role to date — although, his performance in 21 Jump Street is genuinely astonishing in its own right, to say nothing of his underrated showing in 2016’s War Dogs — but the actor’s dramatic turn in Moneyball remains the most memorable, if only because, like the astonishing wins piles up by Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s magical 2002 season, we never saw it coming.