Movie Maniac

September 22, 2011

‘Moneyball’ hits a home run

Baseball movies are a genre unto their own, whether funny (“Bull Durham”) or serious (“Field of Dreams”). And baseball usually transcends the limits of the game, becoming a symbol of the human spirit.

It’s only fitting, then, that “Moneyball” transcends the limits of a baseball movie. With a tight yet sweeping script by Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”), the film is funny, moving and thrilling, though it’s rooted in anything but: statistics.

Based on the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis, the real-life story follows Billy Beane (a career-best Brad Pitt), as the general manager of the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s, as his team is about to lose three star players.

But tight monetary constraints won’t let him hire the players who he thinks will steer the A’s to a World Series victory — his ultimate goal. So he starts wheeling and dealing the way baseball teams have done since the early days. And his staff continues to judge players with irrational gut instinct (having an ugly girlfriend makes a guy a bad player because that shows he lacks confidence).

Then Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, also in a career-topping performance), a fresh-from-college statistician working for a rival team. Brand doesn’t know baseball, only numbers. He’s made this his obsession, and has come up with a formula for building a winning team based purely on statistics, not on players’ abilities.

For instance, he says, a player could be an asset if he gets a lot of walks. Walks mean bases, and that means runs. And that means wins.

Beane is eventually convinced. So he starts forming a team of “misfits,” as Brand calls them — underrated players who will be traded cheaply but will perform as the numbers predict.

This causes a furor, and Beane is soon butting heads with his staff, not to mention being ridiculed by the baseball world.

Beane also butts heads with the team’s manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to position his players as Beane insists. The result is a horrendous season debut and many losses after that.

But then Beane swindles and trades players to his advantage, and the coach has no other choice but to use the players he’s given. The Oakland A’s finally become a victorious team of underdogs, eventually going on to win a monumental 20 games in a row.

As with any against-all-odds story, there are setbacks and roadblocks. But the characters make it poignant, and the acting makes it resonant.

Pitt is particularly compelling. His Beane is cocky and confident, but also vulnerable. It’s slowly revealed that Beane is an ex-jock who was once a promising star.

And Hill shows great dramatic range as the subdued, nerdy Brand. There are no hints of his previous comedic roles in “Superbad” or “Get Him to the Greek.”

Director Bennett Miller, who guided Hoffman to an Oscar in “Capote,” keeps the story swift. And he makes the boring side of statistics downright exciting.

He also makes baseball a metaphor. We win, we lose. And — just like the film itself — sometimes triumph.

Three and a half stars out of four
Opens Friday
Rating: PG-13 (some strong language)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Showing at: Chisholm Trail 8 (Newton), Derby Plaza, Movie Machine, Northrock 14, Warren Old Town, Warren Theatre (east and west)

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