If baseball is a metaphor for life - and there are Phillies fans out there right now who believe life ends with a victory parade up Broad Street - then Moneyball is about fixing your life, changing course, reassessment, and reinvention.
Funny, furious, and full of front-office drama, Bennett Miller's savvy adaptation of Michael Lewis' best-seller, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, presents the real story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, a tobacco-chewing, Twinkie-scarfing strategist who found himself, and his team, in the throes of crisis. The year was 2001, and after losing to the New York Yankees in the playoffs, the A's suffered even greater indignity: Their three stars - Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, and Jason Isringhausen - were lured away by cash-rich rivals.
With an owner who couldn't match the stratospheric salaries, Beane was stuck: His roster was full of head cases, underachievers, has-beens. What's a guy who's spent his whole life in baseball - first as a player, then as a scout and manager - to do?
He goes to Cleveland, meets a nerd kid doing stats for the Indians, and sets about building a new team, based on new paradigms, on a new kind of math. Never mind the grizzled gang of coaches and their recommendations - recommendations based on gut and instinct and the way a player comports himself. Hire the guys with high on-base percentages and low salaries. Hire the guys nobody wants.
If this all sounds like, well, inside baseball, it is. But it's one of the great accomplishments of the Moneyball screenplay - from Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian - that the story works even if you have no idea what an ERA, or Sabermetrics, is. Brad Pitt, who stars as Beane, has a lot to do with this, too. Pacing around and banging stuff, and trying to balance his professional life with what's left of his personal one (he's divorced, and trying to be some kind of dad for his little girl), Pitt's Beane goes from gloomy despair to crazy hope. It's a classic trajectory, Capra-esque and crowd-pleasing, but Pitt adds layers of emotional depth, mixing moments of wild rage and frustration with a beautifully quiet, inward-reaching performance. Don't be surprised to see Pitt in the best-actor Oscar race come the new year.
Jonah Hill, as Peter Brand, the visibly fidgety statistician, is a revelation, too. The overweight, over-perspiring dork of Superbad and Funny People pushes his twitchy awkwardness in uncharted directions, and the interplay between Pitt and Hill's characters - as the two embark on their crackpot mission - is something to behold. One great sequence, set on trade-deadline day, has Beane working the phones, playing one general manager off another, while Brand mugs, mimes, and offers counsel. The breathless bidding culminates with Hill delivering a totally dweeby - and exquisitely triumphant - fist pump.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, his hair in a buzz cut and his girth spilling out of an A's uniform, is manager Art Howe, who doesn't see eye to eye with Beane and his newfangled ideas. The increasingly confrontational encounters between the old-school practitioner and his boss are among Moneyball's most satisfying scenes.
Actually, I take that back. Moneyball is one satisfying scene after another - smartly written, superbly acted, realized with an eye for telling detail. Hey, it's a sports movie, right, so forgive me: Moneyball, it's a home run.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.