Among his movie-star contemporaries, Brad Pitt seems singularly capable of maintaining top-of-A-list status by surviving, if not thriving, while choosing non-traditional lead and supporting roles: psychotic, sociopath, vampire, several imbeciles, and a guy who “ages in reverse.”
Portraying Billy Beane seems for Pitt a positively mainstream departure, even though the general manager of the Oakland Athletics is at best an anti-hero.
Beane was the subject of a terrific 2003 book titled Moneyball, and the film version starring Pitt is to be released at the proverbial theaters everywhere Friday (Sept. 23) as what promises to become something less than a major motion picture. Indeed, viewing it at a Seattle preview last week, I could but wonder whether I might be among the minority genuinely enjoying what often plays like a kind of romanticized documentary.
Both book and film portray the way Beane was among the first major-league executives to embrace the advantages of intense statistical analysis in choosing “under-valued” players and paying them on the cheap. Beane did it out of necessity. Owners of the small-market A’s (the team will be in Seattle Sept. 26 to 28 to help the Mariners close down the season) couldn’t and hence wouldn’t commit to big salaries in order to keep marquee players. Beane “simply” turned to a so-called sabermetrics specialist to evaluate bargain players based on arcane number-crunching.
It led to a particularly successful run, with the club making the playoffs five of seven years through 2006, which was the last time Oakland played in the post-season.
The filmmakers have tried to imbue what is a traditional sports movie with elements of melodrama: family relationships, for example. Clearly, Beane’s home is an office at a ballpark, where he hides himself from the live action on the field, preferring to “watch” games via media. His extended family consists of the players, coaches, scouts, and execs. Much of the characterization is underplayed, with the exception of Philip Seymour Hoffman showing that Art Howe was anything but the passive manager fans seemed to see near the dugout.
I wasn’t surprised to see Pitt on covers of popular magazines as the “Moneyball” opening approached. Particularly worth the time for film and baseball buffs is a lengthy interview with the actor in the Sept. 23 edition of Entertainment Weekly. (The edition is available online, but must be purchased.)
In it Pitt speaks of a telling similarity between his predicament and the ongoing payroll challenges of Beane. The actor claims the only way the movie would be made would be (as he says often happens because of his unorthodox role decisions) if he worked “at a discount. To do anything that’s a labor of love, there’s always some discount.”
Pitt indicates during the interview that there were some casting decisions he regrets. Beane himself made an early decision (he eschewed a quarterback scholarship to Stanford to pursue what would be a failed baseball career) that may have been wrong at the time but seems to have worked well for him.
Fans of the 47-year-old actor, meanwhile, may hope that he’ll skip more quirky parts and try some mainstream roles before he’s too old to play anything but a guy who has aged the traditional way.