Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
Bennett Miller’s Moneyball opens on some seismic behind-the-scenes shuffles. After a stunning defeat in October 2001, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) learns he’ll be losing three key players to rival teams. Off-screen, Moneyball’s production started the same way: In 2009, just five days before the cameras were set to roll, the project lost its director, Steven Soderbergh.
Soderbergh’s Moneyball likely would’ve looked like something along the lines of last year’s excellent High Flying Bird. As in the film he eventually got to make, the director—with a script from Steve Zaillian—would’ve cut to the real baseball players and figures in an ambitious, detail-driven, medium-mixing, semi-documentary. I use all those adjectives and hyphens because the movie Soderbergh and Zaillian wanted to make sounds a lot more interesting than the one we got—and frankly, a lot better.
Actual Oakland A’s manager Art Howe would’ve appeared on-screen. Instead, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays him in an utterly thankless role. When the movie introduces him, Howe appeals to Billy for a contract lasting longer than a year—later, after Beane commits to his unorthodox strategy, Howe explains, “I’m playing my team in a way that I can explain in job interviews next winter.” And by the third act, Moneyball has completely forgotten about him.
So what’s Hoffman doing in such a sloppy, underwritten part? My guess is that he’s here as a favor to replacement director Miller. The pair’s friendship goes back decades, and in the scramble to replace Soderbergh, Columbia Pictures approached the Capote director. He agreed, and, when production resumed, Miller’s sophomore feature found him paired with Aaron Sorkin’s re-written script.
The result feels like the opposite of a match made in heaven. Capote functioned as a dark, slow, and cold study of one man’s psychology. Sorkin’s scripts, like Charlie Wilson’s War, work when things are barreling forward as fast as the actors delivering his rapid, pithy dialogue. He deals in brilliant characters that are a little more than ciphers but a little less than people. These approaches don’t necessarily conflict on paper. In practice, however, it’s a mess.
This incompatibility is clear in an early scene, in which Beane voices his frustration with the way the A’s operate. Surrounded by old-timer scouts and their outdated logic for recruiting players, Billy declares that when it comes to the upcoming season, “We’ve got to be thinking differently!” It’s a classic Sorkin scene, but Miller cuts it to pieces. No shot or close-up lasts for more than a few seconds. Why does the edit emphasize really lame reaction shots instead of Billy’s call-to-action?
Sorkin’s stuff is rarely revolutionary, but there’s a way to stage it effectively—a method Miller regularly avoids. It’s a shame because Pitt gives his all in this performance. The actor soaked up a lot of praise last year for his reserved turn in Ad Astra, a role that asked him to communicate a lot with just his eyes. His character in Moneyball isn’t quite as repressed, but he’s close. As we learn in clumsy flashbacks, Beane looked like a surefire star in high school, then choked, spiraled, and flopped during his five years on the field in the MLB.
So Billy doubts the scouts certain they see a professional ballplayer. Instead, he links up with Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young, green assistant with a radical approach to team composition. Brand believes in putting the stats first, building a team based on the math as opposed to hunches or whether an athlete looks good. It’s actually a pretty complicated concept to convey to an audience. How exactly do you show that adding “bad” players makes a better team? Miller’s answer is a barrage of shots of spreadsheets. Gorgeous!
It’s as if the film is caught between the mechanics that eventually propelled the Oakland A’s to a record-breaking season and its quiet study of Beane. To balance both, a lot of the stats are minimized to make room for a subplot involving Billy’s daughter—which is about as bullshit as tact-on daughter subplots usually are. It’s only ever watchable when Spike Jonze shows up in a cameo as Billy’s ex’s spouse. Also, Blizzard/Activison CEO Bobby Kotick appears as the Oakland Athletics co-owner. Both cameos are baffling.
Ultimately, it’s a bit ironic that for a movie about the assembly of a scrappy team that rises to groundbreaking success, all of Moneyball’s talented collaborators failed to do the same.
As Beane and Brand’s game-changing tactics fail to gain immediate traction, the middle of Moneyball begins, which is basically just a bunch of short scenes where Billy knocks something over or yells a bunch in his car. I buy Pitt’s frustration, but this material just doesn’t measure up. Hill and Hoffman are in a similar boat. The former earned an Oscar nomination for his debut dramatic performance, and if Moneyball has any lasting legacy, it’s the first proof—outside of Superbad—that Hill really can act.
Hoffman also brings some world-weary gravitas to his performance. The actor was in his early forties at the time, but he comes off as a much older, intimidating team manager. This combination makes him the movie’s best messenger of the skepticism around Beane’s strategy. If only Sorkin and Miller had bothered to give his character any arc at all. You’d think there’d be room too, because Moneyball is long. Too long. At two hours and 13 minutes, Miller’s slow pace drags the way Capote never stalled. Not that it really leads anywhere, though. The conclusion can’t even pull off the whole “winning isn’t what matters” trope.
At least it all looks good, courtesy of cinematographer Wally Pfister. His grand nighttime stadium shots effectively communicate how large baseball looms for these men. Then again, there aren’t many, because Miller doesn’t seem very interested in making a conventional sports picture. Ultimately, it’s a bit ironic that for a movie about the assembly of a scrappy team that rises to groundbreaking success, all of Moneyball’s talented collaborators failed to do the same.
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