Throwing the conventional sports-movie formula a curve, “Moneyball” defies the logic that auds need a rousing third-act championship to clinch their interest. Instead, writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin resurrect the old adage “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game” to drive this uncannily sharp, penetrating look at how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane helped reinvent baseball based on statistics rather than near-superstitious thinking. Sparing auds the technicalities but not the spirit of financial reporter Michael Lewis’ business-of-baseball bestseller, “Moneyball” should appeal well beyond — if not always to — the game’s fans.
Whether or not Hollywood wants to admit it, there’s an undeniable parallel between big-studio economics and Major League Baseball, in which the big guys in both fields are split when it comes to making decisions: Old-timers do it for the art, basing their judgments on gut instincts and years of tradition, while a new class of business-school grads crunch the numbers, using statistics to make smart bets. Surely the irony isn’t lost on Steven Soderbergh, who developed Zaillian’s script in a more avant-garde direction, which would have blended documentary-like interviews with dramatic re-creations.
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And yet the result — which puts the focus back on Beane (Brad Pitt) and the Ivy League-educated wunderkind (Jonah Hill) who helped him rewrite the rules — is plenty artistic with “Capote’s” Bennett Miller at the helm. Without comparing drafts of the screenplay, it would be tricky to say where Zaillian’s contributions end and Sorkin’s begin, and yet there’s no mistaking the latter’s touch for electric dialogue. As in “The Social Network,” he takes conversations that have no business being entertaining and leaves us hanging on every word.
What “Moneyball” doesn’t do is waste a lot of time on the field. It’s nearly all talk, as Beane copes with losing to the New York Yankees in the 2001 playoffs and seeing rich teams poach the A’s three most valuable players — Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen. The problem becomes how to assemble a winning team on an impossibly small budget; the solution involves rethinking how baseball scouts evaluate players.
In reality, that makes for a lot of math. On film, Miller manages to explain it by flashing equations and spreadsheets beneath dialogue anyone can grasp. The veteran scouts — depicted as crusty, chaw-spitting geezers — talk the “same old good-body crap,” judging players by how they look, who they date and how they behave off the field. Beane and Peter Brand (Hill) focus on just one thing: OPS, or “on-base plus slugging” percentage, the sabermetric statistic that best describes a player’s ability to score runs.
Depicting more than just the clash of old vs. new, the film captures the moment nerds took over what had always been a jock’s domain — all the more fascinating when you consider that Beane, who passed on a Stanford scholarship to sign with the New York Mets right out of high school, had been a prize athletic specimen back in his day. Strategically timed flashbacks offer glimpses of that talented young hopeful (played by Reed Thompson) meeting with recruiters before striking out in the big leagues. But Sorkin likes to present the theme and then zing it with a line of dialogue, as when Athletics scouting director Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock) berates Beane, “Twenty years ago, a scout got it wrong and now you’re going to declare war on the whole system.”
A big enough name to get the movie greenlit (the way Sony chief Amy Pascal, not Soderbergh, saw it), Pitt sheds any trace of movie-star vanity by allowing himself to be seen as a has-been with a bad haircut. Beane knows he’s sticking his neck out by backing Brand’s numbers-based strategy (the kid, based on Paul DePodesta, had never even played the game), and yet Beane’s job is to give the theory a chance, against the objections of manager Art Howe (a surly and skeptical Philip Seymour Hoffman), fully aware that everyone would dismiss their logic if the team were to lose.
While a hopelessly awkward-looking Hill provides fish-out-of-water laughs, Pitt gives a genuinely soul-searching performance. He reaches for junk food when nervous and questions himself in solitary, but his best scenes are those featuring his daughter Casey (Kerris Dorsey). During family moments, including those featuring his ex-wife (Robin Wright) and her new beau (an uncredited Spike Jonze), Pitt reveals that Beane’s swagger is mostly for show, and his true nature is far more sensitive than anyone who’s seen him cut a player would guess. Of all the script’s ingenious ways to translate the character at the heart of Lewis’ book, none is more inspired than having Casey sing Lenka’s “The Show.”
Another approach might have treated the source material as exposition for a more conventional baseball story, but “Moneyball” is content to draw back the curtain and find drama in the dealings. Miller’s low-key style suits that strategy nicely, breaking up shop-talk scenes with artful, quiet moments in which Beane steps away from the action, nicely captured by d.p. Wally Pfister. Though Soderbergh’s talking-heads idea fell by the wayside, theresult does employ a fair number of documentary techniques, cutting to MLB footage to illustrate the team’s on-field performance and featuring a score by Mychael Danna that echoes Philip Glass’ work on several Errol Morris pics.