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With: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Kerris Dorsey
Written by: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, based on a book by Michael Lewis, and on a story by Stan Chervin
Directed by: Bennett Miller
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language
Running Time: 133
Date: 09/09/2011

Moneyball (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Winning Numbers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

We already have lots of inspirational sports movies, many of them based on true stories. There's even a successful formula in place, used to mold the stories into a traditional three-act Hollywood structure.

The new Moneyball has all of that, but more -- so much more. Director Bennett Miller makes this movie pulse. It avoids a kind of historical importance, or looking back with a godlike omniscience, and somehow makes it seem as if it's a great story, just happening. I'm not talking about those docudramas that seem vibrant because of grainy film stock and shaky cameras; Moneyball is slick and good-looking, and it feels alive to its very core.

Based on Michael Lewis' 2003 book "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," the movie tells the story of the 2002 Oakland A's ball club. General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), himself an unspectacular former player, is wrestling with how to build a team with a measly $41 million budget, compared with the $125 million budget of the New York Yankees.

While sitting through meetings, trying to secure good players for cheap prices, Billy spies the young, nerdy, portly Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) whispering advice. Billy eventually learns Peter's theory: one can put together a team using only numbers, such as a high on-base percentage, and come out with a winning season. This, as opposed to the old scouts' tricks of looking for personality, speed, etc. Billy quickly hires him.

Together, Billy and Peter assemble their new team, a ragtag bunch of misfits. They include former Yankee David Justice, in his last season; the Yankees actually agreed to put up half of his salary to be rid of him. (Justice is played remarkably by Stephen Bishop, a former minor leaguer, a friend of Justice's and a dead ringer for the star player). There's also Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), a washed-up catcher with a blown elbow whom Billy places at first base.

At first it's a struggle to get manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to actually play the team as they were designed to be played. And the season starts off badly. Behind the scenes, Billy barks orders, storms through the clubhouse, and makes strategic phone calls, trading, bluffing, and otherwise shifting the balance of power so that the cards will fall his way. (Pitt and Jonah Hill make an odd, but perfect pair.) Eventually, of course, the team finds its stride and sets an American League record for a 20-game winning streak.

Perhaps Miller has some magic formula to pull off things like this. He did the same thing with his previous film Capote (2005), which might have turned into a typical biopic. Instead, it became an intensified character study, a mystery happening in the moment. It zoomed in and settled its gaze on a specific thing, rather than on a bigger story. Both films feel intimate, and just the right size.

Moneyball spends some time on Billy Beane's past failures: the fact that he was among the most promising of young players, but one who simply never delivered on the ballfield. Fortunately, this stuff is spread out in a couple of brief flashbacks, and they tie nicely in with the present day recruiting sequences. The movie also lets us know about Billy's ex-wife, Sharon (Robin Wright), who gets so few scenes that it's a wonder she's here at all. (Even stranger: Spike Jonze appears uncredited as her new beau.)

But the movie adds a nice touch with Billy's daughter, Casey (Kerris Dorsey), whom he sees from time to time, and who sings an adorable little song for her dad. The movie also does well with a superstition of Billy's -- and I don't know if this is real -- wherein he refused to be at the ballpark during games, for fear of jinxing them. The movie makes superb use of this idea and game 20 of the winning streak, making for a victory that equals Robert Redford's lights-smashing moment in The Natural (1984).

It helps that writers Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List, American Gangster) and Aaron Sorkin (TV's "Sports Night" and The Social Network) have written this screenplay. The dialogue crackles, but doesn't sound overwritten, and the structure is brisk, uncluttered, and logical. These two guys appear to feed off of one another's strengths.

The movie splits up the clubhouse footage with plenty of baseball action; it does a remarkable job of making it look like actual games, captured live, and broadcast on television. It's possible that editor Christopher Tellefsen managed to incorporate actual footage of the real games into the movie footage, and if so, he deserves our applause. These games are exciting, even if you remember the real ones from 9 years ago.

It's an easy prediction to say that Moneyball will be an Oscar favorite this year, but it's one that you can enjoy, rather than one that feels more like a duty. But I'll say something even better: Moneyball is my new all-time favorite baseball movie.

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