It's an odd David and Goliath story when millionaires have to struggle against bigger millionaires, but Moneyball sentimentalizes that baseball drama. What makes Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's (Brad Pitt) plight heroic and fun is that the film is as much about fighting the stodginess of old ideas and defeating crusty skeptics as it is about trying to beat the New York Yankees (which still provides pretty good fallback appeal).
Based on Michael Lewis' 2003 book, Moneyball chronicles Beane's influential efforts to change the way Oakland evaluated players as he tried to compete against the Yankees and other better funded clubs. In 2001, The Oakland A's took the Yankees to five games before losing in the division series playoffs. That's not bad considering the A's had a payroll of $40 million compared to the Yankees' $115 million, but as a reward, Oakland's best players (Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhousen) were bought by richer teams, including the Yankees taking Giambi off their hands. Beane couldn't afford to pay competitive salaries for the game's biggest stars so he decided to find another way to win. In the film, he recruits Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young Yale grad with an economics degree, who tells him that teams are using outdated and highly subjective criteria to evaluate players. Brand proposes using different statistical analyses to identify undervalued players they can not only afford but use to win, though some of the players look like a motley set of replacements for the former stars.
Hill is best known for roles as pudgy nerds in films like Superbad, and he's used to similar entertaining effect here. (The man Brand is based on was neither short, fat nor unattractive.) The old warhorse, sunburnt, leathery-skinned Oakland talent scouts take one look at the soft-spoken, chubby kid with glasses and a laptop and balk at his methodology. But Beane believes the kid's numbers don't lie, and before long, he forces the terrified Brand to take a future all-star player aside and fire him.
Beane and Brand become an unlikely duo as they try to change the thinking and culture of an organization, and the film humorously and convincingly captures how difficult that can be. Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant as manager Art Howe, who simply does not buy into the new system. As the A's lose games while adjusting, the media piles on, and it's funny to hear the actual snippets of overheated pronouncements of failure. Throughout it all, Pitt exudes charm and confidence as Beane juggles what he values in a world where money and winning are usually all that matter. — Will Coviello
Staring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman