As you’ve probably heard by now, Columbia Pictures pulled out of a proposed movie based on the baseball book “Moneyball” at the last minute this weekend. The movie, starring Brad Pitt, was supposed to begin shooting in Arizona this week.
Believe me, nobody was more skeptical about a “Moneyball” movie than I was. After all, how do you make a two hour movie about baseball sabermetrics? One that you have to pay $10 to see and that will appeal to twenty-somethings. Particularly, when the hero of the book “Moneyball” is A’s general manager Billy Beane who, in reality, is a smug, unlikeable, arrogant, self-serving, egomaniac.
The answer is you have to come up with a REALLY good script. Steve Zaillian did just that. His original script for “Moneyball” is brilliant. Read it. Any script that has Billy Beane commiting adultery 10 minutes into the movie has got my vote. GENIUS! Trust me, that wasn’t in the original Michael Lewis book. And that’s where Zaillian succeeds beyond the levels of Lewis’ original book.
Lewis’ book was a treatise. Like Zaillian, parts of Lewis’ book are brilliant. After all, he’s the guy who spotted the entire “Moneyball” trend and wrote about it. The premise is simple. How does a small team (the Oakland A’s) with a tiny payroll compete with teams (like the New York Yankees) who can spend $120 million a year on players and have basically unlimited resources? The answer is they do it by being smarter. Unfortunately, Lewis’ book conveys this with all the warmth and hilarity you would expect from a Wall Street Journal business reporter writing about baseball statistics. Though insightful, Lewis’ book drags at times and is difficult to get through.
Zaillian’s script cuts through the clutter. Trust me, Chad Bradford is more interesting as a 15 second caricature than as a chapter. I don’t want to write a spoiler, but there’s a scene in Zaillian’s script between Beane and Scott Hatteberg’s wife that visually says something more profound and deeper in a moment than anything that was in Michael Lewis’ book.
That’s the brilliance of Zaillian’s work. The best baseball movies are never about baseball. They simply use the sport as a backdrop. “Bull Durham” was about the differences between men and women. It also had clearly defined characters-the wise older player at the end of his career mentoring the empty-headed but brilliantly talented youngster. “Major League” featured a universal theme-the underdog, who hates his boss, striving against impossible odds. Anybody who thinks “Field of Dreams” was a baseball movie wasn’t paying attention.
Zaillians script has a theme. It’s the same one as the book’s. It emphasizes the A’s roles as underdogs. Since the movie is set seven years ago, it picks up on a trend that twenty-somethings can relate to. The movie puts us right on the dawn of baseball clubs actually using the Internet and statistics as a tool. Paul DePodesta appears as a guy in his early 20’s fresh out of college. He and his laptop end up displacing an entire building full of scouts and a manager who won 102 games the previous season. This happened in real life.
Finally, the thing that makes Zaillian’s script ultimately successful is it EMBRACES Billy Beane’s dickishness. Make no mistake. Lewis’ “Moneyball” book is really “The Billy Beane Story.” Virtually every scene in Zaillian’s original script has Beane in it. Now I know why Brad Pitt took this part. He would be onscreen more in this one movie than his last 10 film roles combined. The movie has Billy Beane in bed with no less than four extremely young women. It also has him bawling out DePodesta, his young protege, and demanding him to go tell a player he has been cut. Beane orders DePodesta to be a man and, “Go shoot Old Yeller.” That also wasn’t in the original book but is a true story and happens to be hilarious.
Unfortunately, as Variety describes, director Steven Soderbergh rolled in and screwed up the entire movie. He basically junked Zaillian’s script and wanted to insert a bunch of documentary-style sit down interviews he shot with basball players. What’s the point? For the first time ever I’m going to side with a studio executive over a director. I’m not saying the movie should have been halted, but Soderbergh should have stuck to the original script, which is brilliant. Still, somebody must still want this movie to be made. That’s why Zaillian’s original script was leaked and put up on the Internet. Hopefully, “Moneyball” does get made as layed out by Zaillian’s original vision. Not as a documentary featury more Scott Hatteberg.