DAVID BIANCULLI, host: Eight years later, after lots of false starts, that Michael Lewis book finally has been made into a movie. It stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the unorthodox general manager of the Oakland A's baseball team. Our film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: The film of Michael Lewis's game-changing nonfiction bestseller "Moneyball" is inside baseball, literally, but it wouldn't be so rousing if that were all it was. The book tells the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of a small-market ball team, the Oakland Athletics. Heading into the 2002 season, he has a quarter the amount of money to pay players as the near-perennial champions, the Yankees.
Both the book and the film focus on how Beane, played by Brad Pitt, has to think outside the box - hiring older or hobbled or undervalued players, based on a different criterion of value than the scouts use: not the ability to hit home runs, but to get on base. This view of the on-base percentage or, OBP, changes your idea of what it means to be an asset in the big leagues. That's something that hits home with Beane for reasons other than Oakland A's performance. Flashbacks show him as a high school baseball star who's convinced by scouts to pass up Stanford and go straight to the majors, where he bombs. He has a lot at stake in showing how scouts have gotten it wrong.
It must have been a challenge to adapt a book like "Moneyball," given all the minutiae, but the two credited screenwriters are among the best in the league. Steve Zaillian has a talent for digging narratives out of thickets of minutiae, while Aaron Sorkin has a talent for adding minutiae back in and giving it a headlong momentum. This is not a fast-paced film though. The director, Bennett Miller, sometimes loses the pulse, and at more than two hours it's a long haul. But Brad Pitt is so intensely likable that he keeps you absorbed.
The best thing is his on-screen relationship with Jonah Hill, who plays Peter Brand, a dweeb fresh out of Yale whom Billy hires to execute the OBP theory and pump up a team ravaged by having its stars hired away. The scenes in which this odd couple charge around the Oakland Coliseum have a wonderful comic hum - Pitt lean and easy and gum-chewing, Hill blobby and twitchy in ill-fitting suits. On the phone with another team's GM, Peter takes whispered orders from Billy while negotiating to buy a player named Rincon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MONEYBALL")
JONAH HILL: (as Peter Brand) Hi, Mr. Schott, it's Peter Brand. I apologize for putting you on hold earlier. Billy asked me to call you back. He's on the other line.
BRAD PITT: (as Billy Beane) Tell him we want 225,000 for Rincon.
HILL: (as Peter Brand) Billy says he needs $225,000 for Ricardo Rincon. Please. Yes, I added the please at the end. Okay. Let me - hold on one second, please.
PITT: (as Billy Beane) Tell him I'll pay for him(ph) . But when I sell him back for twice the amount next year I keep the money.
HILL: (as Peter Brand) Okay, so Billy says he'll pay for Rincon himself, but when he sells him for more money next year, he's keeping the profit.
EDELSTEIN: That scene ends delightfully, with Hill slowly closing his fist and exulting: They got 'em. It's too bad that when it comes to the games, Bennett and his screenwriters don't dramatize how wins are built from unflashy players working in synch. I know that sounds academic, but so much time is spent with the characters pouring over spreadsheets and talking about on-base percentages that it would be nice to see more than montages of the A's winning and winning again, as if Beane and Brand had written a baseball computer program that's now running to its inevitable conclusion. For one thing, it leaves the on-the-field manager, Art Howe, looking like a cipher, which is doubly weird since he's played by a star, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. My guess is Hoffman - who looks and acts nothing like the real Howe - took the part as a favor to his friend Miller, who directed him in his Oscar-winning role in "Capote."
"Moneyball" doesn't come together, but it's very entertaining as a sports underdog story, a kind of "Bad News Bears" for MBAs. And Pitt has never had more star presence. Miller and cinematographer Wally Pfister light him to bring out the hollows in his eyes, so he bears a resemblance to Benicio Del Toro, soulful with a hint of dissolution. He doesn't downplay his movie star handsomeness, but he knows it's not enough. Pitt was the main force in getting this movie made, and on some level you can feel that onscreen. He's hustling for the team in every way.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Coming up, I revert to TV critic mode and review the efforts of some familiar TV stars returning in different primetime venues. This is FRESH AIR.
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