With the exception of 2008's Sugar, baseball flicks are one and the same: A ballplayer overcomes a personal shortcoming—Roy Hobbs's shadowy past in The Natural, Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn's nearsightedness in Major League, Dottie Hinson's uterus in A League of Their Own—in order to achieve greatness as a true underdog of our storied national pastime. Yet for all the celluloid Scotty Smalls out there inflating our backyard dreams of success on the diamond, the blunt reality of baseball is that the biggest muscles, the biggest paychecks, and the biggest teams are the ones that win.
This is the harsh dilemma faced by Moneyball's central character, Billy Beane (played by a tired-eyed Brad Pitt, a role somehow even less sexy than his performance as a shriveled mound of backward death in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). As the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Beane is dealt a permanent losing hand: running an undesirable team in an undesirable small market that can't afford to re-sign its elite players. Frustrated by the futility of modern baseball, Beane teams with Peter Brand (a composite of Paul DePodesta and J. P. Ricciardi, and played by Jonah Hill, in his very first role without a single dick joke), a Yale graduate and numbers geek who reexamines the very foundation of the game based on Bill James's sabermetrics philosophy.
Masterfully directed by Bennett Miller (who stepped in after Steven Soderbergh abruptly left the project in 2009), Moneyball visually bolsters the absorbing tale told in Michael Lewis's best seller of the same name without using any winded sports clichés—thankfully, it's no The Blind Side, which was also adapted from a Lewis book. In a sense, Moneyball is the anti-baseball baseball film: It stays off the playing field and focuses firmly on a central concept that values math and percentages over actual physical performance. Gently paced and well-written (thanks, Aaron Sorkin!), Moneyball captures Beane's noble attempt to achieve perfection in an imperfect sport.
But that also means those expecting baseball on the big screen will be sorely disappointed—Moneyball's action scenes are deliberately scattered, and when they do occur, they're dimly lit with a worrisome sense of isolationism. In lieu of World Series heroics, you get extended stretches of Pitt saddled by his emotional burdens or frantically working the phones in order to swindle another team out of inconsequential middle reliever Ricardo Rincón. It's fascinating, but definitely not exciting—like an entire film based on the shrewd managerial skills of Pop Fisher.