By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 20, 2011 at 12:31PM
"Moneyball," the long-gestating adaptation of Michael Lewis' non-fiction tome about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's attempt to construct a winning team with mathematical trickery, demonstrates an awareness of the challenging material from the outset. How do you make equations into compelling drama? Answer: You ignore them and go on with the show. The movie begins with a quote from Mickey Mantle about the impossibility of fully understanding baseball from the inside out. "Moneyball" never attempts to explain it, swiftly navigating around the details of Beane's scheme. Instead, director Bennett Miller has produced a warm and generally agreeable character study about the pratfalls of athletic institutions and the willingness to think outside the box.
Played by Brad Pitt (also a producer of the project), Beane comes across as a sad-eyed dreamer facing impossible odds. In 2002, having lost star player Johnny Damon and countless others to richer teams, he struggles to come up with a plan that avoids compromise and certain failure. His team's paltry $38 million budget trembles in the Yankees' $120 million shadow. Eager to get his old time peers to help him find a breakthrough, he borders on utter despair when he finds upstart Yale economics grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), whose ability to study players' numerical data instead of superficial details opens the door for assembling a better team. "Baseball thinking is medieval," Brand tells Beane, which makes the veteran certain he has found his answer.
Scenes of actual gameplay are sparse, because "Moneyball" is primarily about the obsessive nature of baseball's inner circle of power players. It follows a fairly obvious arc based around Beane's obsession with competition. Miller (utilizing a screenplay that has passed through a few hands, most recently Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) routinely flashes back to Beane's squashed potential as a major league player. It's a tried-and-true device for drawing obvious parallels with his contemporary need to find a winning solution, but sufficiently keeps the drama in flux.
Shocking his peers with decisions that threaten to doom an already-suffering team, Beane faces opposition from field manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to use the team in the unorthodox configuration Beane envisions for it. Howe is the closest thing that "Moneyball" has to a bad guy, and provides enough of an opposition to push Beane over the edge and see his gamble through to the bitter end.
The most remarkable thing about "Moneyball" is just how swiftly it moves along. Initially set to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who envisioned the adaptation as a hybrid of fictional scenes and documentary interviews, it has since been boiled down to a fairly conventional affair. But Miller maintains a fluid pace and highlights extraordinary naturalistic moments (many of which involve backroom strategy sessions). He creates a fully believable universe not only dominated by baseball but defined by it. The script's only major flaw involves the exploration of Beane's troubled family life; occasional moments with his supportive 12-year-old daughter belong in a different, lesser movie.
Pitt, however, looks right at home as a nearly over-the-hill dreamer scavenging for the best success route. Hill, whose role might seem like a dubious casting decision based on his existing goofball image, actually works quite well in a noticeably muted (but still comically inspired) role. His deadpan expression is the ideal counterpoint to Pitt's bubbling enthusiasm for the moneyball game.
He's also a believable mathematical prodigy, which allows the movie to avoid cumbersome explanations. Taking a page from "A Beautiful Mind," the screenplay sidesteps extensively outlining the process in favor of an enthusiastic montage of equations and algorithms mostly left up to the viewer's imagination (unlike the book, which apparently delves into the process at great length). In short, "Moneyball" translates statistics into the formula for a crowdpleaser by simply glossing over them. Although focused on a reinvention of major league rules, as commercial entertainment, it's still the old ballgame.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Brad Pitt and baseball are two major ingredients that should result in a winning formula for "Moneyball" at the box office, although its awards season potential is still unclear.