The film of Michael Lewis's game-changing nonfiction bestseller Moneyball is inside baseball, literally, but it wouldn't be so rousing if that were all it was. The book tells the story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of a small-market ball team, the Oakland Athletics. Heading into the 2002 season, he has a quarter the amount of money to pay players as the near-perennial champions the Yankees.
Both the book and the film focus on how Beane, played by Brad Pitt, has to think outside the box — hiring older or hobbled or undervalued players based on a different criterion of value than the scouts use: not the ability to hit home runs but to get on base. This view of the on-base percentage (OBP) changes your idea of what it means to be an asset in the big leagues. That's something that hits home with Beane for reasons other than Oakland A's performance. Flashbacks show him as a high-school baseball star who's convinced by scouts to pass up Stanford and go straight to the majors, where he bombs. He has a lot at stake in showing how scouts have gotten it wrong.
It must have been a challenge to adapt a book like Moneyball given all the minutiae, but the two credited screenwriters are among the best in the league. Steve Zaillian has a talent for digging narratives out of thickets of minutiae, while Aaron Sorkin has a talent for adding minutiae back in and giving it a headlong momentum. This is not a fast-paced film, though: The director, Bennett Miller, sometimes loses the pulse, and at more than two hours it's a long haul. But Brad Pitt is so intensely likable that he keeps you absorbed.
The best thing is his on-screen relationship with Jonah Hill, who plays Peter Brand, a dweeb fresh out of Yale whom Billy hires to execute the OBP theory—and pump up a team ravaged by having its stars hired away. The scenes in which this odd couple charge around the Oakland Coliseum have a wonderful comic hum, Pitt lean and easy and gum-chewing, Hill blobby and twitchy in ill-fitting suits. On the phone with another team's GM, Peter even takes whispered orders from Billy while negotiating to buy a player named Rincon.
"We want $225,000 for Rincon," whispers Billy, as Peter relays his order.
That scene ends delightfully, with Hill slowly closing his fist and exulting: They got 'im! It's too bad that when it comes to the games, Bennett and his screenwriters don't dramatize how wins are built from unflashy players working in synch. I know that sounds academic, but so much time is spent with the characters poring over spreadsheets and talking about on-base percentages that it would be nice to see more than montages of the A's winning and winning again, as if Beane and Brand had written a baseball computer program that's now running to its inevitable conclusion. For one thing, it leaves the on-the-field manager, Art Howe, looking like a cipher which is doubly weird since he's played by a star, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. My guess is Hoffman — who looks and acts nothing like the real Howe — took the part as a favor to his friend Miller, who directed him in his Oscar-winning role in Capote.
Moneyball doesn't come together, but it's very entertaining as a sports-underdog story, a kind of Bad News Bears for MBAs. And Pitt has never had more star presence. Miller and cinematographer Wally Pfister light him to bring out the hollows in his eyes, so he bears a resemblance to Benicio Del Toro—soulful with a hint of dissolution. He doesn't downplay his movie-star handsomeness, but he knows it's not enough. Pitt was the main force in getting this movie made, and on some level you can feel that onscreen. He's hustling for the team in every way.