Happily, one doesn’t have to be a fan of baseball to enjoy “Moneyball.” Bennett Miller’s canny adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the 2002 Oakland Athletics isn’t about the game as wish-fulfillment fantasy but as nuts-and-bolts business, and with a sharp, smart script by Steven Zaillian and Adam Sorkin it manages to make that potentially dreary subject almost as fascinating as Sorkin did the world of computer programming in “The Social Network.”
Like that picture, it also boasts a rich lead performance, this time by Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the A’s general manager, who watches as his cash-strapped team loses to the far flusher New York Yankees in the 2001 playoff series and his three star players are bought away by richer competitors. Beane, who as a hotshot high school player gave up a Stanford scholarship to sign with the Mets, only to have a disappointing career (as we’re shown in a series of flashbacks in which he’s played by fresh-faced Reed Thompson), tries to rebuild with the meager financial resources at his disposal. But when traditional methods of choosing players offer no real hope, he goes for what might incongruously be called a Hail Mary pass by hiring Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an Ivy League numbers-cruncher who’s developed a system for designing a roster based on statistics-driven sabermetrics rather than old-style, impression-driven scouting.
The film is largely about how Beane insists on employing Brand’s method, hiring unlikely players—some even for unaccustomed positions—in the face of stiff opposition from his old-line staff, including manager Art Howe (Philip Seumour Hoffman), and incredulity from fans and commentators alike as his refashioned team takes the field and proceeds to lose. Of course their fortunes eventually change, but though what happened is a matter of historical record, it wouldn’t be fair to viewers who don’t have the details at their fingertips to reveal the arc the season follows. In any event the path matters take, and where they wind up, is less important than Beane’s personal journey, which ends in vindication, if not complete triumph.
In other words, baseball is merely the backdrop to a character study of a man who’s instrumental in changing the fundamentals not of the game itself, but of the way it’s managed—in the process challenging the idea that big money is all that matters. And Pitt gives one of his strongest performances to date in the lead, showy but at the same time true to the scruffy, pushy character of Beane, and convincingly suggesting the sense of regret the man feels over a career that’s failed to fulfill its potential. In that connection the script adroitly adds a subplot about his domestic disappointments, with Robin Wright doing what amounts to a cameo as his ex-wife (and Spike Jonze appearing unbilled as her new husband) but Kerris Dorsey especially winning as his daughter, who exhibits a wisdom beyond her years about his needs and talents.
Back in the team offices, Hill nicely tamps down his customary volatility to play Brand as a nervous nerd who grows in confidence as the year progresses, and though Hoffman’s part is surprisingly brief, he has a few scenes where he gets to smolder effectively. There are also a number of hilarious sequences where Beane (and later Hill) square off against the entrenched scouting staff led by Grady (Ken Fuson). The guys are portrayed as a bunch of clueless over-the-hill duffers who might be attending a “Sopranos” reunion meeting. Among the players Chris Pratt stands out as Scott Hatteberg, a catcher whom the Beane-Brand plan transforms into a first-baseman, and does Stephen Bishop as Dave Justice, an older player that Beane sees as a team leader. And Arliss Howard contributes a rather creepy cameo as the owner of the Boston Red Socks who seeks to recruit Beane to the east.
Throughout Miller’s direction and editor Christopher Tellefsen work to give the film drive and vitality, and Wally Pfister’s expertly-judged cinematography keeps things looking real, nicely making room for the archival on-field footage inserted to accompany the team’s progress over the season.
Be forewarned that “Moneyball” doesn’t end with the usual rah-rah finale so characteristic of sports movies. That’s yet another point in its favor.