Play ball

What’s very clever about Moneyball is that it’s so inside baseball, it’s inside out. The truth is that this is more of a business movie than a sports movie. That such a spreadsheet-intensive concept could register real human thought and feeling has to count as some kind of triumph.

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill star in Moneyball, based on the book by Michael Lewis about how the Oakland A’s changed the way that baseball teams value players.

The director is Bennett Miller, who made Capote. The screenwriters are Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, respectively also the writers of The Social Network and Schindler’s List, which is to say that both have subversive, heady ideas about underdog stories.

The source material is Michael Lewis’ 2003 nonfiction bestseller about how Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane reconfigured his “small-market” team, using statistical analysis to turn its lack of purchasing power from a liability into an asset. Instead of spending big on stars, Beane carefully packaged less expensive players in statistically formidable combinations. The result, a 20-game winning streak in 2002, altered not just the A’s reputation but also the whole culture of the sport.

Brad Pitt as Beane is an obvious choice but also perfect. His performance is self-conscious in all the right ways. Beane himself was once a star recruit who gave up college to join the majors, but then washed out and found his way, begrudgingly, into management. He likes winning, Pitt tells us with complete authority, but not losing is what he likes even more. There’s a difference.

Arguably his best acquisition is the nerdy numbers-cruncher, fresh from Yale, who can tell him why on-base percentage actually matters more than batting average. This lightly fictionalized figure is played by Jonah Hill, his pudgy, timid presence shrewdly underplayed and nicely set off against the general ambience of dip spit and gruff machismo. Pitt’s real recognition of Hill’s value is the core of the movie. What could have come across as just an aging jock’s charity toward a callow dweeb becomes much more complex. And that matters a lot in a movie about rethinking how we measure potential.

Of course there is a difference between packaging and teamwork. The tradeoff of Moneyball’s unsentimental take on trading off is a dearth of fellowship. In lieu of team spirit, it runs on rueful humor. The film is tastefully seasoned with snippets of commentator narration, and some brief telling glimpses of Beane’s fragile, fractured domestic life. As an uncooperative dugout manager, Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t get much to do beyond exuding intransigence. But after Capote it’s not hard to see why Miller might want to keep him around, like a good luck charm.

Miller does tend to dwell on moods, and Moneyball could be shorter. It could get to the point sooner, or stay less long. That might be an unchecked symptom of Sorkinism. Or maybe the idea is that a sense of hurriedness would devalue the basic essence of a proudly clockless sport. The rest, after all, is just business.

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