An unconventional sports-underdog drama gets its actors on base.
Comparisons to The Social Network are inevitable: several of the same producers, writer Aaron Sorkin (along with the estimable Steven Zaillian) and a book about a revolutionary concept that became a game-changer. But Moneyball -- based on Michael Lewis' Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which explained how Billy Beane, an ex-big leaguer and GM of the Oakland Athletics, put together a playoff team by looking at reams of statistics -- is a different sort of movie. Its focus is split between two protagonists, and the story isn't as electrifying. Social Network was about a highly unusual alpha dog; Moneyball is the story of a highly unusual underdog.
With Brad Pitt playing Beane and Jonah Hill as an economics grad whose analysis of players helps a small-market team reach the playoffs, Sorkin and Zaillian cut through the equations and mathematical formulas to tell a relatively simple story: Beane, a guy with almost no chance of winning, develops a secret weapon in the young and highly unathletic Yale grad Peter Brand, who sees an entirely different game than scouts and coaches do. The scenes between Pitt and Hill are delights as they struggle to find a working language. It's a great comedy act, with Pitt insisting Hill complete his thoughts for slack-jawed baseball scouts.
The movie proceeds through the improbable 2002 season with continual flashbacks to Beane's story -- he was a can't-miss player (Reed Thompson, who looks uncannily like a young Pitt) who signed for big money rather than accepting a Stanford scholarship. But the movie's heart lies in the vindication of Beane's method. It is personified by two characters: team manager Art Howe, played by the magical Philip Seymour Hoffman as a grumpy old man looking out for his own interests, and Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a lame-armed catcher transformed into a first baseman to get his terrific on-base percentage in the lineup.
Don't like to watch much baseball, you say? Well, join Beane, who never watches a game. He stays in the clubhouse, catching moments on radio or TV or getting text messages from Peter. So the movie is about a master working behind the scenes like a political strategist or boxing trainer, not the game itself.
Director Bennett Miller, who coaxed a satisfying movie out of unlikely material with Capote, puts Moneyball through a workmanlike pace. If it fails to achieve the knockout punch of Social Network, this may be because another film altogether was originally imagined. Steven Soderbergh was set to direct Zaillian's script when Columbia pulled the plug due to concerns with the budget and changes in the original screenplay. One can only wonder what that version would look like as Soderbergh, like Beane, is not one to do things according to old formulas. Nevertheless, the result is rewarding, pulling unusual characters and a timeless story from a welter of "inside baseball."
Release date Sept. 23 (Sony)
Cast Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright
Screenwriters Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin
Producers Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz, Brad Pitt
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