Moneyball could best be described as the baseball film for people who don't like baseball films. And an even better one for those who get off on numbers and statistics, for director Bennett Miller's film (from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) is less concerned with what happens on the field than the machinations behind the scenes when a major league baseball team turns to an unorthodox theory to better its fortunes.
Having just lost their shot at the 2001 World Series, the Oakland A's are reeling; not just from the loss but the loss of three of their best players snapped up by bigger teams with even bigger cheque books (an opening title card tells us Oakland operates on a budget one-third the size of the New York Yankees).
Oakland's general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), tired of losing his star players to other teams and no longer willing to pursue players as if money were no issue, happens upon a system - and a man - offering an alternative. The system is 'moneyballing', whereby players are selected on their stats (ie their merits) rather than the perceived notions of baseball success - hardhitting, athletic prowess, and talent scouts' intuition - and signed-up at a fraction of the price of their more fancied peers.
It's an idea championed by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an Economics graduate from Yale who looks as though he should be cutting the players' cheques rather than determining their positions on the team. But Beane, much to the chagrin of his Oakland colleagues, embraces both the theory and the man.
And Pitt and Hill make for the perfect odd couple pairing of 2011, with Hill's Brand playing straight man to Pitt's at times manic Beane. When he's not stuffing his face with food, Beane's upturning furniture and throwing any object within his grasp that isn't nailed down whenever in a fit of pique.
And that's a lot in the early days of implementing the moneyball strategy, when the team can't manage a win and the field manager, Art Howe (the underused Philip Seymour Hoffman), refuses to play his players as instructed. But then something clicks and the underdogs become serious contenders for the title.
But as stated, Moneyball isn't about what happens on the field. Indeed, fans of the sports film archetype will be dismayed with Bennett Miller's treatment of the conclusion of the Oakland A's journey. Never mind. Miller, making his first film since the Oscar-nominated Capote (2005), keeps us genuinely intrigued by the front-of-house workings of the Oakland A's, assisted greatly by the Zaillian-Sorkin screenplay (though 'The Baseball Network' it's not).
Moneyball is also helped immensely by having its star, Brad Pitt, in top form (though for mine, not Oscar worthy). It's Beane's journey that is the real story here, and Pitt, firing on all cylinders as a man whose own major league dream was dashed and decides to shake up a decades old system, gives Beane the right mix of arrogance and pathos.
The film may falter as it enters its third hour (it's 133 minutes) and rounds for home, but Pitt doesn't: he hits it out of the park.