"How can you not be romantic about baseball?" says Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball." It's a question tinged with sarcasm. Beane (a slyly intelligent Brad Pitt) never watches his team play, catching snatches of the game on TV or radio.
Insulating himself from the emotional swings of headfirst dives into home plate and heartbreak strikeouts, Beane learned to see baseball analytically. He challenged the tradition-bound sport, rejecting magical thinking about lucky streaks, jinxes, weird rituals and overpaid superstars. His data-driven approach took the game out of the realm of voodoo and into predictive data mining.
Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a naive Yale economics nerd with an eye for underpriced talent, helps Beane draft young, inexpensive players and unwanted, affordable veterans with high on-base percentages. With a team of "misfit toys," they transform the small-market A's into a juggernaut.
The film marbles together the Athletics' record-breaking 2002 season with flashbacks to Billy's failure-haunted past, including a failed marriage. Director Bennett Miller ("Capote") and screenwriters Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List") and Aaron Sorkin (TV's "The West Wing") nimbly sidestep every cliché along the way, looking at the game of baseball through the prism of stats and business.
Just as Beane changes the game, this film creates a new formula for the sports movie. A scene with Pitt and Hill in sublime comic harmony as they coordinate rapid-fire player trades while juggling phones is as exhilarating as a triple play.
"Moneyball" was adapted from Michael Lewis' nonfiction bestseller by some of the talented team that gave us last year's "The Social Network." It has a similar focus on a misunderstood, blunt-spoken visionary and a similar air of cool, perceptive brainpower. It's not really a sports movie at all, but a tale of outsiders who defy conventional thinking and the institutions that fight them every step of the way (personified by prickly Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Athletics' headstrong manager.)
There are plenty of colorful old-school guys hanging around the A's clubhouse, and they're responsible for many of the film's laugh-out-loud moments. One veteran scout nixes a prospective player because "he has an ugly girlfriend," and therefore no self-confidence -- a wonderfully flawed and subjective pronouncement. Those old shamans are about to be shaken up by Beane's new computerized-evidence-beats-intuition vision of the game. Though not as shocked as the deep-pocketed New York Yankees, overrun by the team with the smallest player payroll in the league.
Pitt's Beane is as original a character as I've seen in a baseball drama. He's a driven, disappointed athlete, his youthful dreams of World Series glory crushed but still smoldering. He passed up a full scholarship at Stanford in favor of a big-money outfielder's position for the New York Mets (and later the Minnesota Twins). He never became the top player the recruiters anticipated. He never even learned to give those stirring locker-room speeches that are sports movie staples; his big pep talk is five seconds of silence. How can you not fall in love with a movie like that?