When Brad Pitt optioned 'Moneyball,' the book's author, Michael Lewis, reportedly told him, "I don't know how you're going to make a movie out of it." It was a fair point. The book, one of the most beloved non-fiction titles of the past 20 years, is ostensibly about baseball, but its real subjects -- money and math -- don't exactly lend themselves to big-screen drama.
After a false start by Steven Soderbergh that cast the movie as a quasi-documentary, Pitt turned to Oscar-nominated director Bennett Miller, best known for 2005's 'Capote.' That film, like this one, managed to locate plenty of screen-worthy drama in the character of a single man and the content of his work.
That man is Billy Beane (Pitt), the charismatic general manager of baseball's Oakland A's, a small-market team that, in the early 2000s, made a pair of unlikely playoff runs. Beane, in the film as in life, is a former "five-tool player" (he could run, throw, field, hit for average and hit for power) whose athleticism and good looks turned major-league scouts into panting suitors, resulting in a first-round draft selection by the New York Mets. In the book, we learn that Beane failed to live up to the early hype because he thought too much ("You can't think and hit," the old baseball maxim goes) and lacked the killer instinct that allowed his roommate Lenny Dykstra, an inferior person in almost every other regard, to succeed.
The movie opens on Game 5 of the 2001 American League Division Series, with the A's facing elimination from the playoffs by the far-better-financed New York Yankees (who would go on to face their own miseries in the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that's another movie). Following the loss, the A's learn that three of their star players -- slugger Jason Giambi, outfielder Johnny Damon and pitcher Jason Isringhausen -- are leaving to pursue higher salaries at other teams. With no budget increase on the table, Beane, who, we will learn, hates losing even more than he loves winning, is left searching for a way to somehow beat the odds and make it back to the playoffs.
So begins the work. Fed up with his old-timey scouts with their gut feelings and bogus theories -- one player's ugly girlfriend is cited as evidence that he "lacks confidence" -- Beane winds up hiring Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a Yale economics graduate whose dense spreadsheets offer a new way of looking at a winning team: not as a collection of star players but as an aggregate of runs and wins. He teaches Beane to look past the usual suspects (the home-run hitters and marquee idols) and find the undiscovered gems: guys who look funny, throw funny, hit funny, but get outs (if they're pitchers) or get on base (if they're hitters).
In reality, Beane's assistant, Paul DePodesta, brought with him a team of number-crunching "quants," as Michael Lewis refers to them, but the film, for obvious reasons, focuses on the collaboration between Pitt's Beane and Hill's Brand, the magnetic leader and the nerd in possession of the secret password. Hill's Brand has none of the hard, bitter edge evident in Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's previous movie, 'The Social Network'; Brand is a geek adrift in a jock world, and only Beane can break through his chronic anxiety and unlock the confidence that lies beneath.
Pitt, for his part, appears only too happy to have so far outlived the pretty-boy looks of his youth that he can credibly play an underdog, even one who started out as an Adonis. It's ironic that my colleague Mike Ryan commented on how refreshing it is to see Brad Pitt play "a regular guy," since Beane is nothing of the kind: He's a former major league ballplayer who hires and fires millionaires for a living. Still, Pitt and Miller do a fine job of underplaying the glossier aspects of Beane's life and job. We see him conduct a (doomed) $7 million negotiation over the phone in his modest kitchen and it feels right: This is what life looks and sounds like for the workhorses in America's glamorous industries.
Naturally, it was necessary to pay at least some attention to Beane's personal life, but this, too, is underplayed, and successfully so. We briefly meet Beane's seemingly nice ex-wife (Robin Wright) and learn little from the encounter except that they have a daughter together, and that she has a namby-pamby husband who, in fairness, is probably a much better partner to her than Beane had ever been. There are also a few token scenes with Kerris Dorsey, as Beane's daughter, Casey, during which she strums the guitar, sings a bit and urges her dad not to be so incorrigibly superstitious. (Beane never watches his team's games, a quirk which we are left to interpret for ourselves but which would seem to relate to his extravagant hatred of losing.)
Apart from the Beane women, though, almost everyone in 'Moneyball' is a man. This is every inch the workplace drama that 'Mad Men' is, but it's one that takes place in a world where men not only dominate, but virtually obliterate the opposite sex. Even when the notorious playboy Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo) acts up, he does so in an all-male environment, pretending to be a stripper to the tepid amusement of his teammates.
There isn't much action, either. Beane abuses the furniture pretty regularly, and there are a few simulated baseball sequences, but most of the big drama happens in the A's rundown offices. We watch in single-take real time as Beane, through a Sorkinian series of clipped phone calls, executes a multi-player deal in a matter of minutes. And we watch as Beane and Brand slowly demolish the old order of baseball, represented in the film by manager Art Howe (an all-but-immobile Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Still, as any baseball fan can tell you, Beane's A's never did make it to the World Series. The filmmakers are forced to turn the team's record-breaking 20-win streak into their Robert Redford–smashes-the-scoreboard moment, but even Beane can't seem to muster much enthusiasm for the qualified triumph of their mathematical model over the romantic old ways.
The last 20 minutes of the movie drag a bit, as Beane tests his own allegiance to scrappy Oakland. The man who failed worst when everyone expected him to win, and succeeded best when everyone expected him to lose, has to decide whether he wants to align himself with the front-runners again. I'll refrain from spoiling the outcome for those who haven't read the book or followed the papers, but I'm not sure there are enough of you out there to justify the extended treatment of this simple decision.
Much better is the brief moment where Brand shows Beane a tape of a young prospect hitting a home run without even realizing it. "It's a metaphor," Brand says, and Beane speaks for the audience when he snaps back, "I know it's a metaphor." Still, it applies to more than just Beane; audience members, too, may look back on this deceptively quiet, even plodding film and realize that, like a pitcher's duel on a long summer day, it meant more than they realized -- and maybe more than anyone had a right to expect.
'Moneyball' opens in theaters nationwide on Sept. 23. Click here for more of Moviefone's coverage of the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival.