New on DVD: Moneyball (2011)

A baseball general manager uses statistical analysis to bridge the money gap between major market teams and the provincial have-nots.

Flow charts? Graphs? Sexxxxy.

NOT.

It doesn’t sound like a very interesting idea for a movie. And yet Moneyball is one of the year’s best films, a thinking person’s sports movie overflowing with humor, drama, terrific characters, drop-dead wonderful dialogue (courtesy of the writing dream team of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin) and a low-keyed but absolutely wonderful performance from Brad Pitt.

Bennett Miller’s film even made me appreciate Jonah Hill. Which is saying something.

It’s the story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Pitt), who has just lost three free agent superstars – Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhausen – to teams with much deeper pockets.

Beane desperately wants to build a winning organization (his own playing career was marked by mediocrity and missed opportunities) but recognizes that the A’s will never have the money to hire and keep the game’s stars.

What to do?

Enter Peter Brand (Hill, playing a character loosely based on real-life Beane assistant Paul DePodesta), a recent Yale grad who mixes a fat kid’s nerdy sports obsession with a steel-trap mathematical mind.

Brand has this idea that you can put together a winning team by hiring baseball’s most undervalued players, basing the selections solely on a batter’s on-base percentage.

Some of Moneyball’s most delicious scenes find Beane going nose-to-nose with his crusty old-school scouts, who rely on their instincts, not numbers. (These meetings, taking place deep beneath the stadium in cinder-block rooms in the blue-ish glow of of florescent lights, offer a perfect visual impression of the non-glamorous, grungy side of big-league sports.)

Moneyball follows Beane and Brand through the 2002 season in which they introduce their new system (today known as sabermetrics). It starts out disastrously, not in small part because A’s manager Art Howe (a deliciously dour Philip Seymour Hoffman) refuses to go along with these newfangled ideas.

But halfway through the season something wonderful happens. The Athletics begin to cook, going on to a record-setting 20-game winning streak. Sabermetrics has made the difference.

The film is essentially a character study of a guy who, aside from running a pro baseball franchise, doesn’t have all that much going for him.

The divorced Beane seems not to have a personal life, save for the occasional weekend with his pre-teen daughter (Kerris Dorsey). He avoids interacting with his players...that makes it too hard when it’s time to send them packing.

And he’s superstitious...he refuses to watch the A’s play, believing it will jinx their chances.

Billy is, in short, a loner in a lonely job, a quality Pitt effortlessly projects. Aside from a few moments of cathartic anger this is a surprisingly quiet performance from a major star.

And yet the Pitt charisma is unavoidable, making his Billy Beane a compelling, even weirdly heroic figure.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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