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Bennett Miller's Moneyball (Columbia Pictures), adapted by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian from the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, is a sports movie for people who don't like sports movies. I know this is true because I enjoyed it. Many classic films about sport hinge on a climactic zero-sum contest—the "big game"—that leaves this viewer as indifferent as real-life big games do. This is in no way meant as a slight against the dazzlingly gifted athletes who play pro sports, or the fine people who follow them. (There's one on my couch right now, watching the Phillies.) But secretly I'm always thinking, well, one side or the other has to win, and then the game and/or movie will be over, right? Can't you just get back to me with the score?
The sports movies I come away remembering—Breaking Away, Eight Men Out, North Dallas Forty—are about things that happen on the periphery of the big game: intrigue, romance, betrayal, or in the case of Moneyball, back-room horse-trading. This low-key, unassuming, yet curiously satisfying movie invites us into the seldom-visited world of the general manager, the guy whose job it is to know who to recruit, who to trade, and who to cut from the team. A few key scenes take place on the baseball diamond, but the real playing field here is the cluttered desk of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the GM of the Oakland Athletics.
In October 2001, Billy, a once-promising player who went into management after his career sputtered out, has just watched the A's lose their shot at the World Series, then has three star players sign as free agents to richer teams. * Sitting around with his crusty team of talent scouts, Billy mocks their often imprecise criteria for spotting talent: Is the player in question good-looking enough to attract local fans? Does he have an ugly girlfriend—a possible sign, theorizes one old-timer, of low self-esteem? But Billy, working with a limited budget, doesn't have any better system to offer—until, at a meeting with the Cleveland Indians' management, he runs into Peter Brand (Jonah Hill). * Pete is a young, socially inept Yale economics grad who's developed a wonky spreadsheet system for predicting a team's success over time. Beane poaches Brand from the Indians and brings him on board as his assistant, to the chagrin of the A's old-school manager, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman!).
To the amusement of the baseball establishment, Peter and Billy develop an unorthodox but cost-effective approach to creating a lineup. They cobble together a Frankenstein of a team in which a player's on-base percentage counts for more than his batting average, figuring that a mediocre player who consistently hits singles is worth more than an unreliable superstar. They acquire a catcher, Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) whose throwing arm is shot, promising he'll get on-the-job training at first base. (Asked by a fellow player what scares him about his new position, Hatteberg replies, with dead seriousness, "A ball being hit in my general direction.")
Like another recent film, Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, Moneyball manages to invest its characters' sessions at the whiteboard or computer screen with more drama than you might expect. It's not necessary to know exactly how Billy and Peter's number-crunching system works in order to grasp that these are two men enthralled with the possibility of building a great ball club and, if they get lucky, changing the way a great team is built. Moneyball is a buddy comedy crossed with an office drama: At its heart is the relationship between the laconic but hot-tempered Billy and the timid but brillliant Peter.
As Billy Beane, Pitt gets to dip tobacco, engage in manly backroom banter ("If he's a good hitter, why don't he hit good?"), and hurl the occasional locker-room water cooler to the floor with rage. But Billy is also a fragile, angsty sort who is too invested in his beloved team to actually watch their games—he listens on the radio from his car or has the results texted to him while he works out. Pitt himself is at the top of his game, using his leonine good looks to his advantage in building a complex character: As he wanders the clubhouse in sweats, munching on fast food, you can see both the stubbornly proud GM and the disappointed ex-player within.
Jonah Hill, who was wearing out his welcome as a loudmouth comic actor, completely renews his visa in this straight dramatic role (which also gives him the chance to be funny, not by wisecracking broadly but by underreacting). One of the film's chief pleasures is in watching Hill's initially bumbling young nerd slowly acquire the courage of his convictions. A late scene in which Billy and Peter jointly negotiate a sneaky trade, playing two rival teams off each other in a series of overlapping phone calls, moves forward with propulsive screwball velocity, with Hill's triumphal fist pump serving as a laugh line in itself. A plot thread in which Peter first resists, then reluctantly accepts the grim task of telling players they've been traded will resonate with any middle manager who's had to wield an axe on their boss's behalf.
A back story about Billy's ex-wife (Robin Wright) and 12-year-old daughter (Kerris Dorsey) doesn't accomplish as much as it should, though Pitt's scenes with Dorsey are worth it for the young actress's button-cute face and distinctive voice. And a series of flashbacks to Billy's youth featuring an actor (Reed Thompson) who looks uncannily like the young Brad Pitt leaves us a little too much in the dark as to what happened to Billy's career—did he have a fatal character flaw of some kind, or was he just not a good enough ballplayer?
Cinematographer Wally Pfister's deliberately unglamorous presentation of the A's dilapidated clubhouse is a long way from the gold-and-sepia tones of Barry Levinson's The Natural. "You can't help but be romantic about baseball," Billy observes to Peter, even as he's being reviled by his own organization for his supposedly bloodless reliance on the stats. It's to the director's credit, and Pitt's, that Moneyball is anything but bloodless—in its own quiet, unspectacular way, this movie courses with life.
Corrections, Sept. 23, 2011: This article originally stated that the A's star players were traded to other teams when in fact they signed to other teams as free agents.(Return to the corrected sentence.) This article also incorrectly implied that the As ranked near the bottom of the league in wins. In fact, they had just come off a season when the team won 102 games.(Return to the corrected sentence.)