It could have been a classic David vs. Goliath story, a made-for-Hollywood account of the small-market Oakland A’s and their beleaguered general manager, Billy Beane, taking on Major League Baseball’s free-spending powerhouses.
But “Moneyball,” Bennett Miller’s sports drama loosely inspired by Michael Lewis’ 2003 best-seller, is more ambitious than that.
There was a time when Beane (Brad Pitt) played the game on the field, as a can’t-miss outfield prospect who passed up a full scholarship to Stanford to pursue his dream of being a big-leaguer.
Assured by scouts — the same set-in-their-ways Cassandras he would later hold in contempt — of a superstar future, the teenage Beane bought into the hype.
“Moneyball” is not just the story of Beane’s struggle to build a winning team as a baseball executive, but also of his mission to exorcise the bitterness lingering from his pedestrian playing career and his ill-fated rendezvous with a destiny he could never achieve.
That’s to say nothing of the practical problem he faces: how to compete with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox of the world, whose payrolls more than triple Oakland’s.
Watching three of his most indispensable players bolt for greener pastures following the team’s 2001 postseason meltdown, Beane decides to shake things up. “Adapt or die,” he cries, and there to point him toward an alternative school of baseball thinking is Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics major at Yale who believes the secret to on-field success lies in an innovative interpretation of the game’s Torah, statistics.
The response to Beane and Brand’s unorthodoxy is predictably hysterical. Scouts call them fools. Fans want Beane’s head, suggesting (erroneously) that his job was in danger.
Even the team’s manager, Art Howe (a seen but too rarely heard Philip Seymour Hoffman), seems less than thrilled to be sharing office space with baseball’s most daring mavericks.
Why should he be? Beane, always the coolest kid in the room — Brand is the smartest — is an emotionally muted pragmatist who seems disconnected from his players and, to a lesser extent, the audience.
Pitt’s performance here is one of his most deftly restrained — the GM’s soul is laid bare in his quietest moments, often lost in contemplation of a past fraught with frustration.
For those indifferent to baseball, “Moneyball” is made accessible through Beane’s relationship with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), which tugs at the heartstrings when the movie requires the kind of sentimentality Beane can’t muster on his own. As a device, it’s slick but effective, which aptly describes the movie itself.
If you go
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt
Written by Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin
Directed by Bennett Miller
Running time 2 hours, 13 minutes