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film_mbPitt scores in entertaining, real-life baseball saga ‘Moneyball’

When I first heard about the baseball movie Moneyball, I had the wrong idea of what it was all about. The story of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane throwing out a century of tradition to assemble a team according to strict computer analysis sounded like another instance of solid, old-fashioned values being replaced by bean-counters and statisticians—the incorporation of baseball for profit.

But, in fact, just the opposite is going on in Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” and this entertaining screen adaptation.

The phrase “Moneyball” refers to the moribund, old-school way the sport has been run over the last 30 or 40 years, where celebrity players’ salaries skyrocket into the millions, and only the richest teams—like, the New York Yankees—who can afford the most expensive players, win all the marbles, year after year. This is the status quo that Beane tilted against during the A’s 2002 season depicted in the book and film, assembling a group of inexpensive players from spare parts and leftovers, according to computerized stats, in hopes they would mesh into a cohesive team.

But the question remains of how to make a story about manipulating stats into something cinematic onscreen. Director Bennett Miller (Capote) solves the problem by casting Brad Pitt, at his most charismatic and fun to watch, in the starring role of Billy Beane. Working from a savvy, intelligent script by Hollywood veterans Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, director Miller crafts a wry and engaging David vs. Goliath tale that pays homage to the “romance” of baseball without resorting to the usual sentimental clichés.

The story begins at the end of the 2001 season, as the $114 million franchise that is the Yankees soundly trounces the $39 million A’s franchise in the AL playoffs. To add insult to injury, Oakland’s star players, Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, are immediately bought by New York. “It’s like the A’s are a farm team for the Yankees,” fumes Oakland GM, Billy Beane (Pitt). In the front office, his plea for more cash to offer competitive salaries is dismissed. “We’re a small-market team and you’re a small-market GM,” he’s told.

On the road to talk trades with other managers, Beane meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale graduate with an Economics degree at his first-ever job as a player analyst for the Cleveland Indians. Peter’s laptop number-crunching so impresses Beane, he hires him to help assemble the 2002 A’s team. Instead of relying on the “experience and wisdom” of the scouts (played by real-life baseball scouts, depicted in a couple of funny scenes as selecting or rejecting players based on, say, a showy swing—despite the inability to hit—or whether the relative pulchritude of a girlfriend suggests “lack of confidence”), Beane and Brand go after second-string players picked up on the cheap with statistically proven skills the team needs—like the ability to actually get on base.

The season gets off to a rocky start, chiefly because manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) stoically refuses to use the new guys to their best mathematical advantage. With his own job, and career, on the line, Beane has to out-maneuver him by trading away key players until Howe is forced to get with the program. Which leads to (in the film’s most typical, yet still exhilarating Cinderella sequence) a  record-setting winning streak still unsurpassed in the American League.

I have no idea how factual the film is in terms of the personalities involved or character dynamics, although Brand is evidently a fictional character created after Beane’s real-life assistant objected to being portrayed as a

“stats nerd.”  But Pitt makes a tasty little feast out of the part of Beane. A former pro ballplayer whose career in the film_moneyballmajors never quite panned out, he knows how traditional scouting sometimes goes amiss, and forges an empathetic, no-b.s. bond with the guys on the team. Pitt is also a riot in the film’s most bravura scene, as Beane makes rapid-fire phone deals with half a dozen other GMs in the course of a couple of minutes to get the one player he needs, on his terms.

Well-acted, and packed with colorful backstage baseball ambience, Moneyball scores a solid hit.

MONEYBALL

★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Written by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. From the book by Michael Lewis. Directed by Bennett Miller. A Columbia Pictures release. Rated PG-13. 133 minutes.

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