An actor-producer nurturing a dream project needs some of the people skills, and the ruthlessness, of a major-league general manager. Brad Pitt had resolved to make a movie of Moneyball, Michael Lewis's "nonfiction" best-seller about Oakland A's GM Billy Beane during the team's 2002 season, and achieved it with numerous personnel changes. As Beane had traded players and ditched scouts, so did Pitt run through at least three writers Stan Chervin (story) plus Oscar-winning scribes Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and three directors: David Frankel of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, then Oceans helmer Steven Soderbergh and finally Capote's Bennett Miller. Yet the film doesn't play like the minutes of a fractious board meeting; it turns out to be smart, funny and seemingly seamless. That surely is as much a tribute to the star's administrative strategies as to his on-screen charisma.
A solid, bustling social comedy at the 130-IQ level, Moneyball boasts the zinging, stinging repartee of grown men working at a kids' game and tired of being handed the prevailing line of bull. Most impatient is Beane, a former teen phenom who was all high-school promise, no big-league delivery. Decades later, as the A's GM, he built playoff teams on a fraction of the payroll of the Yankees colossus. But in early 2002 he had lost three top players to richer teams and would get no help from his chintzy owner. "The problem," he tells his scouting staff, "is that there are the rich teams and the poor teams, and then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us." Beane has little talent to use as trade bait and few minor-league prospects. He can't win the old way. So he'll try another method: what Lewis called "moneyball."
In a confab with the Cleveland Indians, Beane notices a young stats cruncher named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, in an owlish, watchful turn). An economics major from Yale with no sports background, Brand is ready to put the sabermetric logarithms of baseball theoretician Bill James into practice, and Beane hires him. James's model is anathema to the A's scouts, parchment-skinned geezers who consider themselves the Supreme Court of baseball wisdom, muttering mantras like "five tools" and "good face" as if they were the Bill of Rights. Beane curt warning to them: "Adapt or die." He also orders his field manager, Art Howe (a wearily agitated Philip Seymour Hoffman), to man first base with a kid who draws plenty of walks but has never played the position.
Apparently fearful of an all-talking picture, Miller adds shots of Billy driving at night, smashing things and working out in the team gym. And, presumably for the ladies, the movie offers a subplot of Beane's ex-wife (Robin Wright) and early-teens daughter (Kerris Dorsey) that has its sweet spots but whose main function is to pad a 90-minute movie with an additional half-hour of domestic angst and uplift. There's also a long section in which the A's flirt with a record 20 consecutive wins something the real Billy Beane would remind you is sabermetrically irrelevant, as long as you pile up enough W's by season's end.
The central pairing, though, has championship stuff: Beane, a jock with a restless intelligence, going on a bold adventure with Brand, a sedentary soul whose computer brain pinwheels stats that Beane can turn into wins. It's as if the Winklevoss twins of The Social Network another script with the high-octane-motormouth Sorkin touch had found a way to work with Mark Zuckerberg. When these two start brainstorming, Moneyball cruises into the high gear of the savviest old Hollywood comedies.
Moneyball bears another similarity to The Social Network: it's largely fictional. "Peter Brand" is in reality Paul DePodesta, who, while getting his economics degree at Harvard, played baseball and football unlike the fat, doughy Hill, who looks as if he'd be exhausted by a game of Go Fish and who, in the movie, fans in his one attempt at a high-five slap. DePodesta, later GM for the Dodgers and now the Mets' head of player development, told Yahoo Sports' Tim Brown, "I'm not particularly fond of the caricature, particularly since it's not me. I never was that guy before the book came out and I'm not that guy now." DePodesta asked that his character's name be changed and it was.
Baseball fans can debate such verses of the Beane gospel as "a walk is as good as a hit." (Well, not always: If there's a man on second base, a walk to the next batter doesn't advance him, whereas a single to the outfield could drive him in.) But what's crucial is that Beane's team didn't shine at what he preached: working out walks, getting on base, knockin' 'em home. In their Moneyball year the A's were 9th in on-base percentage, 10th in RBIs, 4th in walks; in all these categories, the Yankees and Red Sox were first or second.
No, the reason the A's managed four consecutive post-season runs from 2000 to 2003 was their trio of phenomenal young pitchers, who are almost completely ignored in the Moneyball movie: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. In 2001, they, Ted Lilly and Corey Lidle became the first starting five in decades who each had an ERA below 4.00. Even more startling: that same year, the Golden Three's combined salary was less than $1 million. Now that, in an era of $100-million teams, is the makings of a minor miracle.
But probably not the makings of a mass-market movie, or a vehicle for Brad Pitt. And he does sensational work. At ease in Beane's skin, he exudes pure movie-star authority by walking into a room, juggling phone calls from rivals GMs, playing Svengali or Caligula or your understanding dad. Earlier this year Pitt was brilliant as the martinet father in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life a man who was as desperate to be a good parent as he was incapable of pulling it off. Here he's equally fine playing the charismatic dude who says, "I hate to lose even more than I want to win," and who uses that prideful threat as a spur to his team's success. His performance is a canny portrait of leadership part genius, part crazy guts, part dumb luck and worthy of moving Pitt up to the playoff round of Oscar finalists for Best Actor. We'd put money on it.