Toronto 2011: Brad Pitt's 'Moneyball' looks to get on base
Last year at roughly this time, "The Social Network," an Aaron Sorkin-penned Sony movie about a lonely iconoclast, was on its way to becoming the hit of the season.
Whether "Moneyball," another Aaron Sorkin-penned Sony movie about a lonely iconoclast, will replicate the success of that film or simply provide film bloggers with an easy lead-in remains to be seen. But the Toronto audience's reaction to the Brad Pitt baseball dramedy -- which tells of Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane's solitary attempt to upend an entrenched talent-evaluation system -- at the film's world premiere Friday night suggests that it's at least off to a respectable start.
"Moneyball" comes into its Sept. 23 commercial release with a history more indecipherable than a spring-training box score. Directors David Frankel and Steven Soderbergh each came on, then were pushed off, production looked likely until it didn't, and the Michael Lewis book about baseball stats and trades looked for all the world like one more Hollywood cautionary tale.
"Capote" helmer Bennett Miller and late-inning screenwriter Sorkin finally helped get it home, and the result is a movie that's as much about a former jock looking for redemption as it is about a new way of analyzing stats (though that aspect, a major part of Lewis' bestselling book, is surprisingly present too).
It's impossible not to watch Miller's film without letting one's mind wander to how the Soderbegh version would have looked. The "Contagion" director wanted to blend documentary footage -- interviews with the likes of David Justice, part of Beane's '02 team -- with featurized storytelling. Miller's movie doesn't.
But the soul of Lewis' wonky story is still there, as are several player cameos (including Justice) and plenty of Major League Baseball footage. For ardent fans of the book who are wondering how Hollywood would handle it, the film makes the team's improbable summer streak of 20 straight wins the dramatic high point, though, without giving too much away, it also avoids an overly Hollywood ending.
Unlike Lewis' book, there are also a lot of laughs -- the crowd at the Roy Thomson Hall gala conveyed that numerous times -- particularly in the dynamic between Pitt's ornery cuss and Jonah Hill's tentative, bookish protege and spirit guide (Paul DePodesta in real life, renamed Peter Brand here).
Although Beane is more likable than Mark Zuckerberg, the path for "Moneyball" to a "Social Network"-level success is long, not least because a man changing the way baseball players are judged doesn't quite have the same effect as a man changing how the Internet is used.
And even though "Social Network" was putatively about technology, its concerns were sufficiently human that men and women could relate equally. "Moneyball," despite being a story about a troubled man who seeks to reconnect with his hopes and his family, is still ultimately a movie about a man trying to win baseball games.
Before the screening, Pitt, Miller and Hill took the stage, bringing out Beane and Justice for good measure. The controversy that bedeviled, and headlines that accompanied "The Social Network" when Zuckerberg refused to cooperate with Sony's publicity efforts won't repeat itself here. But it's still far too early in the game to say that the studio will hit back-to-back home runs.
-- Steven Zeitchik in Toronto
Photo: Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill in "Moneyball." Credit: Sony Pictures