“Moneyball” is so inside baseball, it’s inside out. Imagine: not just another movie reverie on the virtues of the American pastime, but one with the mindset of a back-office stats wonk. Non-fans will be hard pressed to think up a more boring prospect, and accordingly shocked at how entertaining the film actually is.
This isn’t even a sports movie, really; it’s a business movie, recounting how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane reconfigured his “small-market” team in a counterintuitive and controversial way, turning its lack of purchasing power from a liability into an asset. Instead of spending big on stars, Beane carefully packaged less expensive players in statistically formidable combinations. The result, a 20-game winning streak in 2002, altered not just the A’s reputation but also, arguably, the whole culture of baseball.
“Moneyball”’s description of these events is deliberately automated, and all the more affecting for it. That such a literally spreadsheet-intensive story could register real human thought and feeling at all has to count as some kind of triumph. The director is Bennett Miller, who made “Capote.” The screenwriters are Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, respectively also the writers of “The Social Network” and “Schindler’s List,” which is to say two men with a common interest in pushing the underdog-story envelope. They’ve hit one out of the proverbial park in adapting Michael Lewis’ 2003 nonfiction bestseller, which was subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”
Brad Pitt as Beane is an obvious choice but also absolutely correct, his performance self-conscious in all the right ways. Beane himself once was a star recruit who gave up college to join the majors, but then washed out and found his begrudging way into management. He likes winning, Pitt tells us with total authority, but he likes not losing even more, and there’s a difference.
Arguably Beane’s best A’s acquisition is the nerdy Ivy League number cruncher who can show him why on-base percentage actually matters more than batting average. (Rightful attribution for this mode of stats analysis belongs to baseball guru Bill James, and the movie does manage to drop his name, but not quite in a clarifying way.) The fictional version of Beane assistant Paul DePodesta is as a young man called Peter Brand and embodied by Jonah Hill, his pudgy timid presence shrewdly underplayed and set against the general ambience of dip spit and gruff machismo. Beane’s recognition of Brand’s real value is the core of the film, and both actors thrive in the relationship. What could have come off as just an aging jock’s self-delighted charity toward a callow dweeb becomes instead rewardingly more complex, and that matters a lot in a movie about rethinking the measurement of potential.
It’s also a movie about men and systems, and of course there is a difference between packaging and teamwork. “Moneyball” makes a tradeoff for its unsentimental take on trading off: While the management does its mucking about, the players merely come and go. In lieu of real team spirit, the movie runs on rueful humor, an ironic awareness of rugged individualism. This seems like a useful cure for genre fatigue, and probably a Sorkin touch. Relatedly, along with its message, “Moneyball” supplies its own grain of salt: Take it from Hollywood, success isn’t just a matter of spending more!
Other tasteful seasonings include snippets of real commentator narration, and some brief telling glimpses of Beane’s fragile, fractured domestic life. Pitt gets further support from restrained and trustworthy turns by Robin Wright as his ex-wife and Kerris Dorsey as his teenage daughter. As an uncooperative dugout manager, Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t get much to do beyond exuding bullish intransigence, but after “Capote” it’s not hard to see why Miller might want to keep him around, like a good luck charm.
Miller does tend to dwell on moods, and “Moneyball” could be shorter. It could get to its points sooner, or stay with them less long. That might be a symptom of Sorkinism unchecked, or a conscious statement: that any sense of hurriedness would devalue the basic essence of a proudly clockless sport. The rest, as we’ve been reminded, is just business after all.