Here's hoping that Brad Pitt's presence in "Moneyball" helps the film break through to even non-baseball fans. Even though baseball is the center of the film and terms like OBP and slugging percentage are tossed around, this is a baseball film only in the sense that "The Blind Side" was about football. Baseball provides the backdrop, but you don't need to know the Red Sox from the White Sox to fall deeply into the world of "Moneyball."
Pitt plays Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who was himself one of those don't-miss MLB players who somehow missed. Faced with a team that has nowhere near the money of the New York Yankees, he digs for a way to rethink putting together a team. And with help from Ivy League, statistics-obsessed Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, playing a character based on Paul DePodesta, Beane's real-life assistant at the time), he finds it in numbers.
Scouts, the film explains, like traditional ballpark skills — guys who can bunt, steal bases, earn high averages, even look good doing it. But teams like Oakland really only need guys who can get on base, and even the unglamorous walk can help them get there. Together, Beane and Brand dig up a number of players that other teams undervalue and set out to sign them. This is seen as all-but heresy to the longtime A's scouts and employees. Who is this pitcher with the cartoonish delivery? This rejected catcher who has never played first base, but constantly gets on base? There's a near rebellion, but then the A's start winning. And winning. And winning.
"Moneyball" surely simplifies the issues Michael Lewis delves into so well in his 2003 book. If you listen to sports radio at all, you'll hear the complaints — the film neglects three good young pitchers who helped the A's win as much as the new numbers game, the scouts are unfairly maligned, real characters get short shrift. But with Aaron Sorkin as one of the screenwriters, the dialogue flows so well that you barely notice. (Sorkin reportedly broke his nose while reciting dialogue from the film to himself in front of the mirror. Worth it!)
There are some genuinely absorbing scenes, including one featuring real Oakland scouts arguing with Beane about his new plan. You could have stumbled into an ESPN "30 for 30" documentary, and don't ever doubt that the men know their stuff. In another, more traditional-Hollywood scene, Beane and Brand put together a trade by calling multiple team managers in a whiz-bang window of time and pit them against each other without the managers knowing. It's as satisfying and fun to watch as any action scene or car chase, maybe more so.
Pitt is a natural to play Beane — Beane had it all when he was signed to the majors, and Pitt's pretty much had it all his entire movie career. He's absolutely believable as a guy who's been a star all his life, stumbled, and is now gambling he can get back on top. Scenes with his ex-wife and daughter are a little dull — we keep wanting to get back to the stadium and watch Beane and Brand keep working their system. Hill, who was much chubbier when he made this movie than he is now, plays a little bit of the fat guy nerd stereotype, but a great scene where he has to tell a player he's being traded gives him a nice humanity.
"Moneyball" might not have been made without Brad Pitt as Beane. This is a movie that could have been a tough sell with a less glamorous star. And it's possible it won't make the money of a traditional Pitt romance or action film. Forget that. See it anyway. Take yourself out to the ball game.
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Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is TODAY.com's movies editor.