(director: Bennett Miller; screenwriters: Steven Zaillian/Aaron Sorkin/based on a story by Stan Chervin and the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Gameby Michael Lewis; cinematographer: Wally Pfister; editor: Christopher Tellefsen; music: Mychael Danna; cast: Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Robin Wright (Sharon), Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg), Stephen Bishop (David Justice), Reed Thompson (young Billy), Ken Medlock(Grady Fusion, head scout); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Brad Pitt/Michael De Luca/Rachael Horovitz; Columbia Pictures; 2011)

A decent baseball pic, which is rare.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A decent baseball pic, which is rare. Most baseball films whiff, as they get caught up in cliched stories and can’t overcome how unimaginative they are played out. This crowd-pleasing film is a baseball flick made for those who are not necessarily fans. Instead of focusing on the players it tells how an energetic general manager plays the game of baseball behind the scenes in a hard-nosed way like he does his life, and the pic wisely uses the baseball story as merely colorful background material and promotes instead the more lively bottom-line business approach the GM of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), has to change how his small market team is challenging the big market teams who play moneyball. The gutsy GM applies a different set of stats than previously used by scouts to pick a team. Since Billy’s team responds by winning with this new approach, the copy cat league temporarily changes how some of the other teams operate.

Director Bennett Miller (“Capote”/”The Cruise”) tells how in 2002 the small payroll Oakland A’s ($39,722,689) were competitive on the field with the big payroll NY Yankees ($114,457,768). They made a name for themselves by winning a baseball record 20 games in a row and were a success even if they failed to win it all. It’s based on Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which tells about how the Oakland Athletics changed the model on how to put together a major league team and did it by following not only the usual scouting reports but the guidelines the geeky non-player Bill James used in his 1977 controversial baseball book on stats that showed which players could be obtained on the cheap and would be valuable additions because they possessed underappreciated stats no one else evaluated and that these players would be a good fit for struggling teams who couldn’t afford inflated high paid stars.

The story ofBilly Beane, a former top high school baseball prospect who turned down a scholarship to Stanford and signed with the NY Mets, picks up in 2001 with him a top-level baseball executive. Unfortunately he was a bust as a ballplayer and after a career in scouting the 44-year-old divorced father of an adolescent daughter worked his way up the ladder to be the general manager of the lowly Oakland Athletics. Billy is faced with losing three star players from his playoff team that just lost to the Yanks and is told by his owner not to compete for star players they cannot afford. Billy connects with the recent Yale graduate in economics Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a computer savvy follower of Bill James, working his first job as a lowly front office executive for the Cleveland Indians, and steals him away from the Tribe by making him his assistant. Using Peter’s stats to pickup a bunch of undervalued players via trades causes Billy to clash with his old-time head scout Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock), who thinks his moves do not make baseball sense and are reckless, and with his veteran manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who’s upset he’s working on a one-year contract without an extension and to save his reputation for job interviews next year backs the way the scouts see things of giving their farm team prospects a shot. When the scout is fired and the winning vision Billy had for the team passes the test on the field, the wily manager comes on board to accept the praises from the media and applause of the home team fans.

The gist of the film is the entertaining banter between the fiery GM and his timid assistant, who are supplied with great dialogue by screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and hit it out of the park. It’s an endearing fictionalized look at how the Athletics did business under the irrepressible Beane, as Miller pitches his way out of all the arcane inside-baseball dope to frame a diverting conventional Hollywood pic for either baseball fans or just movie lovers who like inspirational stories about underdogs who give it their all.