3.5 stars (out of five)
Moneyball looks like an underdog sports movie, but it veers away from the path usually followed by films of the genre. My suggestion is that you set aside any preconceptions and just go with the flow. That's a good idea in general, but especially when dealing with an odd duck like this. You'll hear people say the movie is about baseball and accounting, but it's more about how being determined, neurotic and a little ornery can sometimes work in your favor.
Based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, with a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball tells the story of how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane revolutionized baseball by focusing on statistics rather than star power, to the confusion and frustration of many of his own staff. Some baseball fans have complained that both the film and the book play too loosely with timelines and focus too much on certain characters. What a shocker - a fact-based film that takes liberties with facts.
What makes Moneyball a pleasure isn't the new-approach-to-baseball business. The appeal of the film comes from its quirky rhythms, its engaging script, its interesting characters and its fine cast. Brad Pitt gives a sly, thoroughly agreeable performance as Billy Beane, former ballplayer turned not-so-hot administrator. After a strong season, the low-budget Oakland A's best players get purchased by the high-budget New York Yankees. How depressing.
At a particularly frustrating meeting, Beane meets, and soon hires Peter Brand, a sullen young accountant played by Jonah Hill. Peter Brand is made-up, by the way. The real guy reportedly didn't want his name used. Hill's character reminded me of a big toad sitting unresponsive in the park. Brand's social skills are poor and he appears to be intimidated by pretty much everybody, but when it comes to his statistics-based formula for creating a winning team, he is resolute. Restraint is crucial to making the character work, and Hill holds himself back admirably.
Pitt and Hill work wonderfully together. The old guard of the team doesn't know what to make of Brand, plopped in their meeting rooms like a lump of clay, and Brand looks about as uncomfortable as a human can be. Beane gets a kick out of the situation and watching his affectionate relationship with Brand is a treat.
Kerris Dorsey provides strong support as Beane's tween daughter, ably teaming with Pitt to make their scenes together matter. Philip Seymour Hoffman is solid, if unremarkable, as the coach who strongly resists Beane and Brand's new approach. Chris Pratt, so delightful as Andy in Parks and Recreation, is fine as first baseman Scott Hatteberg.
Some writers have referred to the film as this year's The Social Network, but director Bennett Miller's (Capote) production lacks the urgency of the 2010 hit. Still, it's rewarding to watch a movie this smart, this insightful and this weird.