In the annals of baseball movies, “Moneyball’’ is a weird one - a Zen comedy set in the front office. Even the story line sounds unsexy: In 2002, amid much opposition, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane revives his sorry little ball club by using statistical analysis to hire undervalued players - freaks and losers who nevertheless manage to get on base. Slugging percentages and mid-season trades are the stuff of this movie’s drama. Where’s the 3-2 pitch in the ninth, bases loaded, and the kids in the bleachers? Where are the peanuts and Cracker Jack?
Not necessary, it turns out. Based on journalist Michael Lewis’s 2003 book about the team, “Moneyball’’ is a hilarious and provocative change-up, entertaining without feeling the need to swing for the fences. It’s all talk but the best kind of baseball talk, funny and wise and alive to the pleasures of saying as much as possible in the fewest words. Like the fresh thinking it celebrates, “Moneyball’’ finds value in the quieter moments and the workaday players. It’s an infield single but the one that wins the game.
The movie also has what may be Brad Pitt’s sneakiest acting to date. You’re forgiven if you want to say his only acting; while the Dudacious One has always come alive in supporting roles (“Twelve Monkeys,’’ “Burn After Reading,’’ arguably “Fight Club’’), in leads he has tended to coast on his slightly vacant geniality. Some of us have always felt Pitt was a stand-in for a Player To Be Named Later.
Yet the star seems energized by playing Beane, a prodigious high school baseball talent who skipped college only to see a major league career refuse to materialize. He’s one of the thousands who never made it in “the show,’’ and the experience has left him a little bitter but mostly realistic. He’s running a team, the A’s, with a $41 million payroll that’s dwarfed by the $125 million the Yankees get to play with. Early in the movie, the big boys finish off Beane’s 2001 season by cherry-picking Johnny Damon for Boston and Jason Giambi for the Yankees. The Oakland scouts - old men with experience and hearing aids - look over the draft picks and act on their instincts. Does a player have an ugly girlfriend? Forget about him; he has no confidence.
This old-school thinking drives Beane up the clubhouse wall until he meets Peter Brant (Jonah Hill), a shy numbers wonk working for the Cleveland Indians . Brant’s a devotee of sabermetrics, the field of objective statistical analysis pioneered by writer Bill James in the 1980s, and his conclusions fire Beane’s imagination. Hill’s at his most comically froglike here - in no way does he resemble Paul DePodesta, the real assistant GM on whom the character is based - and “Moneyball’’ plays his presence in the holy sanctum of the scouts’ office for maximum awkwardness. He’s the accountant in the boxing ring.
The movie has been directed by Bennett Miller (“Capote’’) with a dry but deeply sympathetic eye for the players Beane assembles - “the island of misfit toys,’’ as Brant dubs the team. They include pitcher Chad Bradford (Casey Bond) with his absurd underhanded throw, party boy Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo), the aging David Justice (Stephen Bishop), and - most movingly - Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a burned-out catcher whom Beane installs at first base. In the scenes with these players, “Moneyball’’ gets at the fundamental injustice of professional baseball - the way it looks at a 35-year-old man and decides he no longer has any use.
So we root for the underdogs from Beane on down, as the rest of Major League Baseball becomes convinced the A’s have lost their collective marbles. I won’t spoil how the season unfolds - if you don’t know, you deserve to be surprised - but it’s a rough road, and the doubters and hecklers are many. Beane gets so much heat from his own manager, Art Howe (a terrific Philip Seymour Hoffman, stolid as a tackling dummy) that he trades a star player just to keep Howe in line. The manager’s response is priceless: a long, contemptuous look and the observation that Beane is “outside of his mind.’’
This movie has had a tough journey itself. Stan Chervin’s original screenplay solved the problem of how to humanize the story by introducing Beane’s teenage daughter (Kerris Dorsey), who doesn’t get much to do besides strum an acoustic guitar and sing Lenka’s “The Show’’ (a song that didn’t come out until 2008, but never mind). Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List’’) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network’’) both had a crack at rewrites, as did Steven Soderbergh, who was all set to start filming in 2009 when Columbia pulled the plug.
So maybe we should be thankful the film’s here at all and overlook its flaws, like excessive length (it’s 133 minutes) or the players’ stories that are left hanging or the fact that life doesn’t always end like we want it to, like movies do. And we should be grateful for Pitt’s perfectly laconic Beane, always looking for an edge and worrying about the jinx, but talking - like all baseball people do when reporters come around after the last out - as if it’s just another game. Seriously, for the first time in a movie I feel like there’s somebody inside Brad Pitt’s head looking out.
Mostly, I guess, we should be grateful the A’s showed what statistical thinking could do for baseball and that the approach was adapted by, among other people, Red Sox owner John Henry (played in “Moneyball’’ by Arliss Howard), who, among other decisions, snapped up a young minor league player named Kevin Youkilis - author Lewis dubbed him “Euclis, the Greek God of walks’’ - and offered Beane a shot at rebuilding the house that Ruth left. Boston didn’t need him, but we needed what he promised. As the 2002 season ends in a mixture of glory and compromise, Pitt’s Beane finally admits that “it’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.’’ “Moneyball’’ figures out where love of numbers connects with love of the game and, two years off, you can see the Fates start to tremble.