THE ACTOR Jonah Hill was in Boston this week to promote “Moneyball,’’ which opens next Friday. The movie tells the based-on-facts but liberally fictionalized story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the general manager of the Oakland A’s who dragged his reluctant profession into the age of sabermetrics, a statistics-based approach to baseball. Hill plays Peter Brand, a portly young Yale grad who converts Beane, a natural athlete who in his playing days failed to deliver on his supposedly can’t-miss potential, to the counterintuitive wisdom that comes of creatively crunching numbers rather than relying on the semi-mystical judgment and conventional stats that had long ruled the game.
“Moneyball’’ may well be the quietest, most contemplative big-time sports movie ever made, and it builds a surprisingly affecting central metaphor from the main premise of its heroes’ insurgent management philosophy: to find players who have been undervalued by old-school baseball types because their obvious flaws - too fat, too slow, can’t field, can’t throw - obscure their virtues, chief among which is the ability to get on base by drawing a boring old walk.
Written and produced by some of the same people who brought you “The Social Network,’’ “Moneyball’’ is similarly a rare attempt to make a movie about being smart - not smart in an action-movie way, like James Bond or Jason Bourne, but smart like people who do well in school. Brand’s talent for math drives the whole film, not only its sports story but its ability to evoke sympathy for its variously flawed, undervalued characters.
Hollywood has never been very good at finding ways to tell stories about this kind of intelligence. It’s hard to render visually, and a movie that flirts with serious consideration of it will usually chicken out and return to the safer territory of explosions, sex, sentiment, or yucks. After an advance screening of “Moneyball’’ in Boston, Hill, whose understated performance is an impressive departure from playing articulate horny losers in slacker comedies, said, “I’d never actually played a character who’s good at anything.’’
“Moneyball’’ eschews Hollywood’s typical strategies for representing intelligence. There’s no impossibly fast and witty repartee, for instance, which would clash with the film’s embrace of baseball’s slow charm.
But “Moneyball’’ does make one standard move: It goes to Boston. When the Red Sox make Beane a big offer that ratifies his daring revision of baseball wisdom, he rides in a limo to Fenway to meet with John Henry. The plot frames this moment as the pinnacle of institutional acceptance: The Red Sox are the kind of rich team that Beane has been struggling to compete against with Oakland’s small-market budget, and we know that the Red Sox will adopt sabermetrics-based thinking and go on to win their first World Series title in 86 years.
Just as important, the scene also exploits and reinforces the cliché of Boston as a promised land for smart people. After all, the Yankees have a lot more championships and even more money than the Red Sox, but the offer from Boston bears the matchless prestige of an offer from Harvard or MIT.
The cinematic genealogy of Beane’s visit to Fenway goes back to “Good Will Hunting,’’ which set the pattern for the boom in Boston-area movies that has been aided in recent years by the state’s film tax credit. “Good Will Hunting’’ made the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and created the template for movies that aspire to tell a Boston story, to draw on the local area’s resonances of meaning. The dominant strain of these movies tells hardboiled tales of neighborhood people with weapons-grade local accents and problems that lead to violence of one kind or another. Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone,’’ “The Town’’) has become a leading purveyor of them.
But there’s another kind of Boston (and Cambridge) story, exemplified by “The Social Network,’’ that tells equally stylized tales of intellectuals who inhabit a rarefied city of the mind. “Good Will Hunting,’’ about a guy from Southie who’s so wicked smaht that he wows them at MIT, prefigured both strains, and it laid the groundwork for the scene in which a jock-turned-brain named Billy Beane, summoned to Fenway, realizes that he has really, truly arrived.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.