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The revenge of the nerds

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball

Michael Lewis’ 2003 book about how the Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane used baseball statistics in complex, innovative and surprisingly winning ways was a phenomenal bestseller. Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Gamehas remained hugely popular for years, not just because Lewis managed to write a good sports drama but also because he wrote a great business book about how a macho, intuitive industry was changed by analytic nerds. While sports metaphors work well in business, and sports movies can be great drama, business books don’t make great films. However, the film based on Moneyball is a great movie, and this despite the business drama behind it, with the second director Steven Soderbergh getting fired and an Aaron Sorkin script getting rewritten. But Brad Pitt (playing Beane), Bennett Miller (who directed Capote), and Steve Zaillian (who adapted Schindler’s List), have hit a home run. (Sorry.)

The film takes some liberties with the book and the actual story, which may annoy some of the book’s fans. The film’s story is thus: In 2001, the Oakland A’s lost the American League championship to the New York Yankees, and then the team lost its three best players to teams that could pay them substantially higher salaries. The unfairness in the book’s subtitle comes from the dirty not-much-of-a-secret that teams with more money can buy their wins by buying the best players. In 2001, the Yankees spent $114 million on their players, while the A’s only had $39 million to work with.

After setting this up, the rest of the movie focuses on the next season and how Beane, working with the same budget, tries to rebuild his team without playing by the rules the richer clubs have set. He decides how to do this when he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a fat, nerdy Yale graduate who effectively argues that it should be statistics, not the baseball scouts’ hunches that should build teams. (Brand didn’t really exist; for “legal” reasons, he replaces Beane’s actual former assistant Paul DePodesta.) This new way means that Billy decides to hire under-valued players who the arrogant scouts and the willful field manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) think are going to be disasters. Aside from a few scenes with his daughter (adorable Kerris Dorsey), most of the film follows Billy’s struggle to convince or manipulate his team into using his new theories.

Bennett Miller’s crafty use of slow motion, muted colors and slyly gorgeous cinematography creates an epic grandeur for what is really a story of office politics. He and the screenwriters use American audiences’ sentimentality about baseball to wonderful effect; Billy even comments on it when he asks, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Even Peter, whose analytical geekiness is what drives much of the plot (and much of the humor), cannot help but get emotional about the game. Billy’s conflicting emotions – between love of baseball, righteous anger at how the business is run, anxiety about whether his decisions are right, frustration with his team – make this Brad Pitt’s greatest role, and in turn, Pitt’s performance of the role is on a par with his greatest work, which was in this summer’s Tree of Life. Either role could win him an Oscar, but I think it’s for his charismatic, sympathetic and frenetic Billy Beane that he will win.

Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin
Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Rated PG-13
Opening Sept. 23 at your local multiplex

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Posted by on Sep 22, 2011. Filed under Movie Review. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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