"Nobody reinvents this game," a baseball announcer smugly intones late in the deliciously entertaining Moneyball, and the same sentiment could apply to baseball movies. Hollywood keeps spitting out variations on James Earl Jones' swooning speech from Field of Dreams, even as the game itself has seen other sports trample it in true national-pastime popularity.
In adapting the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis (The Blind Side), director Bennett Miller and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin tell the story of people who decided to throw away the romanticized notion of baseball. It feels not at all coincidental that Moneyball takes a uniquely unromanticized approach to making a baseball movie.
The story opens with the 2001 playoffs, as the Oakland A's disintegrate, then confront harsh economic reality. Unable to afford fleeing free agents, A's general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) faces a seemingly impossible rebuilding task. But young economics whiz Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) has embraced a new way of looking at players, one that's all about statistics. Veteran scouts and baseball insiders are convinced it ignores every "intangible" they've come to believe about the game.
What follows could have been a standard-issue underdog sports team tale - and in some sense, that's exactly what it is. Beane and Brand butt heads with their brain trust, including manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Scenes focus on putting the ragtag team of castoffs together. There are struggles getting the new system working. And there's that time-honored element of any underdog sports movie worth the name, the winning-streak montage.
But Moneyball takes angles on these components that feel original. In a terrific scene, Beane visits the home of often-injured catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt) to convince him to join the A's as a first baseman. Beane and Brand's first meeting with their skeptical scouts snaps with sharp dialogue. When the winning-streak montage rolls around, Miller mixes it up by showing players drawing walks to emphasize the new focus on getting men on base. Even when Moneyball is employing inside-baseball patter, it feels less like a sports movie than a smart workplace comedy/drama.
Pitt once again demonstrates why he should stick to roles that allow his natural comic charm to shine through. The subplot involving Beane's relationship with his 12-year-old daughter feels forced, but Pitt generally sticks to the urgency of someone who thinks he can have an impact on the game from behind a desk that he never had on the field.
Here's a baseball movie for people who don't think they like baseball movies, because it has the good sense to do what the game itself generally has been afraid to do: set aside what's comfortable because someone has an innovative vision for what's possible.