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'Moneyball': Brad Pitt hits one out of the park

Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill play an unlikely baseball duo in Moneyball. Director  Bennett Miller made an inside-baseball movie that even non-fans can enjoy.
Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill play an unlikely baseball duo in Moneyball. Director Bennett Miller made an inside-baseball movie that even non-fans can enjoy.

Moneyball is a thinking person's baseball movie, and a baseball fan's thinking movie.

It's based on Michael Lewis' book about Billy Beane, the ex-ballplayer-turned-Oakland A's general manager who upended the game by rebuilding his team through cold-hearted statistical analysis called "sabermetrics." Moneyball takes a dry story about numbers and no-name players and turns it into something funny, deep and illuminating.

As Beane, Brad Pitt gives perhaps his smartest, subtlest performance ever. His Beane is a man at war with himself. He's as superstitious as any baseball fan — he won't watch his A's play, even when a trip to the World Series is on the line. He might show a little of Brad Pitt's swagger when he's making a trade or imposing his will on the manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) or the team. But in flashbacks, we see the Beane who once was a bonus baby, a promising prospect who spent years trying to break into the big leagues to make use of the prodigious talents all the scouts claimed he had.

The older, wiser Beane knows, better than the crusty, contemptuous coots who are his team's scouting corps, that confidence is one thing all their hunches, gut feelings and stats-quoting can't measure. And confidence, which did in Beane's playing career, just might be what continues to hold him back.

Stuck with a small-market club with a limited budget, a team that cannot hang onto its stars, this guy who says "I hate losing more than I love winning" tells his scouts, "You're asking the wrong questions." They grumble. They brush him off. They base decisions on a player's look, how ugly his girlfriend is. And they've been doing it for decades.

But when Billy stumbles into a doughy young Yale economics grad named Peter (Jonah Hill) who has better questions, he's ready to start a revolution. It's not about batting average; it's about getting on base. It's not about defense; it's about runs. "We'll find value in players that nobody else will see," he says.

I don't know whether director Bennett Miller (Capote) is much of a baseball fan, but this feels like a curious outsider's view of the game and this "system" that exploded 100 years of accepted wisdom. And that's a great thing. The movie dwells on few players (most were no-names, "the island of misfit toys," they're called) but instead hangs with Beane as he and Peter struggle with rebellious scouts, a cheap owner, contemptuous peers, a defiant manager (Hoffman brings a glorious contained rage to Art Howe) and players — some of whom will have their hearts broken and their spirits crushed when they're traded or sent to the minors.

"Just you and me, Pete," Beane declares. "We're all in."

It's a triumph of tone, and much of this spins off of Pitt, who plays a caring but absent dad, a distant boss who has to be ruthless, and a thin-skinned ex-jock who is buried under a mountain of criticism when things go wrong. As they will.

I love the baseball stuff in this multiwriter script, but I also love the Art of War-style maneuvering that Pitt's Beane becomes known for, the pithy wisecracks that sum up how one plays the general manager's game: "When your enemy's making mistakes, don't interrupt him."

Pitt makes this guy flawed, uncertain, temperamental and impulsive. His is a performance that makes this an inside-baseball movie that even non-fans can understand and enjoy. And he plays this confidence-starved gambler with a verve that Oscar voters are almost sure to reward, sometime after the dust has settled on another baseball season.

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