If nothing else, Bennett Miller's adaptation of Michael Lewis' nonfiction best-seller Moneyball pulls off the nifty trick of making it just as enthralling to watch people talk about baseball as it is to watch them play the game.
The movie stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, a one-time phenom who flamed out in the big leagues and now works as the GM for the Oakland Athletics, a franchise that's about to lose their three best players to free agency. Because the team isn't in a financial position to spend as much as perennial favorites like the Yankees and the Red Sox, Beane realizes he needs to radically change how he evaluates what players can bring to the squad. After he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an Ivy League economics major working as an executive assistant for scouting on another team, Beane realizes he's found the man who understands how to subvert the system of assessing players that's been in place for nearly a century. However, as the duo begin to acquire players that seem too old, injured, or inept to play major-league baseball, they face stiff resistance from both the A's longtime scouts and the team's manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who outright refuses to allow Beane's more-nontraditional acquisitions to play.
Working from a first-rate script credited to Oscar-winning screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Miller's sophomore feature proves that his debut, Capote, was not a fluke when it comes to eliciting great performances from actors. Pitt uses all his movie-star charm as Beane: The character needs charisma to convince his team and his underlings to join him on this unconventional path, and charisma is something Pitt brings in spades. Hill gets big laughs playing a brainy nerd who knows he's right, but still can't believe anyone is listening to him. For an actor who gained fame as a loudmouthed extrovert in Superbad, Hill has been consistently proving (in movies like Cyrus and Get Him to the Greek) he's much more than that -- he's got more comedic range than just about any actor out there, and Moneyball showcases his ability to underplay. It's easy enough to laugh at the physical incongruity of Pitt and Hill simply standing side by side, but the film's biggest chuckles come from their verbal interplay.
Like many excellent movies, Moneyball not only has good performances, but it teaches the viewer something -- in this case, the new school of baseball statistics known as sabermetrics. And the film is savvy enough to make these explanations as entertaining as possible; we learn as Beane does why it's just as valuable for a batter to get a walk as it is for him to get a hit, and having him explain it to the old-school scouts over and over works both as comedy and as a way for audiences to catch up with his way of thinking.
Since the film's main character is trying to go against convention, it's fitting that the movie's story must do the same. The climax of the movie isn't about whether or not the team wins the big game, but whether Beane will leave Oakland to take the GM job with the Red Sox. Admittedly, that kind of drama doesn't lend itself to a visceral, fist-pumping conclusion, but Moneyball is more about the ability to stick by your guns than it is about triumphing in the face of adversity. Integrity means more to Beane than success, but not by much. The drama comes when those two goals seem to be in conflict, when Beane's integrity may cost him not only wins on the field, but a functional working relationship with everyone around him.
As he gets older, Brad Pitt looks more and more like Robert Redford, and seeing the two-time People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive in a baseball movie can't help but bring to mind memories of The Natural. But Moneyball is as different from Barry Levinson's fairy tale as it could possibly be. Refusing to see Moneyball because you don't like baseball is as foolish as refusing to see The Social Network because you don't use Facebook.
Two features into his directing career, Bennett Miller has managed to refresh not only the traditional biopic, but the inspirational sports drama as well. If he never loses his uncanny ear for dialogue, odds are good he's on his way to a stellar career. Moneyball indicates that, unlike his main character here, there seems to be little chance of Miller flaming out in the cinematic big leagues.