Review: 'Moneyball'

(Three-and-a-half stars)

The unlikely tandem of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill helps drive what is arguably the most compelling and insightful baseball-themed film since Robert Redford launched a homerun into the stadium lights in "The Natural" (1984). "Moneyball" -- based on the 2003 novel by Michael Lewis about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane (Pitt) and his unorthodox approach to fielding a winning team on the cheap -- offers a captivating and often humorous look into the business side of America's pastime.

The year is 2002. The cash-strapped A's are starting a new season after losing to the heavily favored (and robustly bankrolled) New York Yankees in the 2001 American League Division Series. The A's have lost their three best players to free agency and the charismatic Beane is leaving no base unturned in trying to build a competitive team despite a bottom-of-the-barrel budget.

Beane hooks up with young economics whiz Peter Brand (Hill), an unheralded wunderkind in the value of baseball statistics (Brand's character is based on former A's assistant general manager Paul DePodesta). Together the duo eschews standard baseball wisdom and begins revamping the team using an analytical/mathematical approach, much to the chagrin of the organization's more traditionally minded scouting department. As the A's get off to a rough start, naysayers are quickly ridiculing Beane's unconventional decisions and calling for his ouster.

To make matters worse, stodgy manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) refuses to make the lineup changes Beane insists upon, causing a further rift in the team dynamics. But Beane's dogged persistence and Brand's unwavering belief in the numeric approach eventually transform the team into a true contender as it rips off a historic 20-game win streak.

Pitt's firecracker portrayal and Hill's understated performance really propel "Moneyball" from standard sports fare to one of the year's best films. The acting is solid across the board, although the grumpy-to-a-fault disposition of Hoffman's character doesn't offer the otherwise exceptional actor much wiggle room. The smart script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin serves up a wealth of humorous scenarios, such as when Beane and scout Ron Washington (Brent Jennings) visit the home of first baseman Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), or in roundtable team discussions involving Beane and Brand.

Flashbacks to Beane's time as a highly touted rookie whose career as a player imploded make the character that much more sympathetic, and poignant glimpses of Beane's personal struggles give the film a sense of intimacy. As Pitt ages he resembles Redford more and more. And like Redford, Pitt's undeniable charm and steadfast confidence help elevate those around him -- a true natural.

Rated PG-13 for some strong language. 2 hours, 6 minutes.

— Tyler Hanley

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