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On the money; A smart, funny baseball film with widespread appeal

"Moneyball" is a very good movie. It's a good thing, too, because it's an even better marketing campaign.

Brad Pitt interviews have been ubiquitous in American print media for weeks -- Parade magazine, Entertainment Weekly. And yes, that's Pitt's face on the cover helping, no doubt, to sell the bejabbers out of Sports Illustrated.

To those of us who have often maintained that Hollywood's talent goes into its movies but its genius goes into its marketing, "Moneyball" is Exhibit No. 1 for 2011.

You cannot imagine how perfectly that applies to a first-rate Pitt movie that disguises an ultra-smart, analytical tale about the cutthroat business of sports and the saving grace of statistics.

The hero of this movie isn't really a man. It's an idea -- and the man smart enough to sign on to it and dedicated enough to resist the temptation to waver.

So eccentric is the essence of this witty baseball movie that one of its two real human heroes isn't even shown on screen, but is merely mentioned in passing in a couple of lines of dialogue. His name is Bill James, a central gallery exhibit in the American Eccentric's Hall of Fame. He's the stats-crazed baseball fan who invented something we've long called Sabermetrics, which is a way of getting ice-cold statistics (and computer analysis) to tell the story of a player's value to his team rather than letting a whole lot of extraneous, irrelevant bullroar tell the tale.

It was General Manager Billy Beane whose Oakland Athletics in 2002 first proved the value of James' Sabermetrics. And it was Michael Lewis' best-selling book about Beane that provided this tale -- how a beleaguered GM with a mere fraction of the working budget of those super-rich Bronx Bullies, the New York Yankees, figured out that he could win the round of "moneyball" by being that much smarter than the Yankees and adopting James' ideas and his reliance on telltale stats.

Since James' ideas -- not the man himself (who soon got a job with the Boston Red Sox) are the real stars of "Moneyball" (how often can you say that about a film?), they're articulated wittily, powerfully and perfectly by a baseball management wunderkind played by Jonah Hill, whose tosspot midsection tells you that he was probably never a whiz on the baseball diamond. Between him, though, and former player Beane (a onetime young "phenom" whose big-league fizzle was endlessly instructional), they struggled their way to state of the art Baseball Wisdom in 2002.

The scene in which Beane introduces his young executive phenom to his grizzled old baseball brain trust of coaches and scouts is characteristic of this film -- electric with offbeat verbal energy and ever-so-quietly hilarious.

As the old baseball guys debate the pros and cons of players they could get to replace the golden players they're losing to free agency (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon), one player is dissed by one of the old-timers because he's got an unattractive girlfriend. "An ugly girlfriend means 'no confidence' ," he tells his fellow bearers of diamond wisdom.

Hooey, says Beane (Pitt), whose analysis of the A's situation in baseball's stratification is "There are rich teams. And there are poor teams. And then there's 50 feet of crap. And then there's us. We've got to think differently."

Which is why he's got a tubby young economics major from Yale sitting at that table and working his life's first real job. That's Peter Brand (played by Hill), a quiet, self-effacing brilliant James apostle who preaches the James gospel, the way to find "value players no one else can see" is to forget entirely the accretion of inside baseball cliches (too old, too funny-looking when he delivers the ball, too ugly a girlfriend, etc.) and just look at the numbers. Does he get on base (who cares if they're walks)? Does he score? For pitchers, does he win games?

So it becomes a matter of brains analyzing brawn and teaching an entire team how to win that way.

That there's excitement and great pleasure in this is due, obviously, to the script by two of our current Oscar-winning screenwriting aristocrats, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (my guess is that Zaillian mostly structured the tale and Sorkin sprinkled the wit on top). You won't believe how much suspense and energy this movie can conjure out of a team general manager calling other GM's and looking for a last-minute trade.

Hill is fine, but Pitt is, indeed, close to spectacular here. I don't think, as some do, it's his best performance on film. He's better in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" and Alejandro Inarritu's "Babel," but he's got the loose-limbed ex-jock confidence and secret amusement that he learned from Robert Redford, an underrated actor who can almost never be caught consciously plying his trade on film.

This is a frustrated but very clever man fighting an absurd world where money and stupidity seem to bully the daylights out of everyone.

Caught in the middle are Robin Wright, as Beane's ex-wife, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, an old-school manager who doesn't understand this "moneyball" world at all.

What you wind up with, then, is a baseball film for people who usually hate baseball films (and who liked Sorkin's "The Social Network"); and a brainy, smart-talk movie for people usually bored pithless by brainy, smart-talk movies.

And none of it overplayed by its director, Bennett Miller of "Capote" fame. On my stat sheet, there are no missteps here, not a one. One of the best of a year shaping up to be pretty good.




3 1/2 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman    

DIRECTOR: Bennett Miller    

RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes    

RATING: PG-13 for language    

THE LOWDOWN: General manager Billy Beane builds the cash-strapped 2002 Oakland Athletics into a record-setting team by using statistics to find the right players.

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