“Moneyball” pitches Brad Pitt into Oscar race – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: As is the case with most memorable sports films, Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” engages, amuses and educates us with moments that happen off the field of play, rather than with what happens on it.

It’s a baseball movie that’s far more focused on the behind-the-scenes process of building a team (through admittedly revolutionary techniques) than it is on the actual performance of said squad. But it has a broad knowledge of the game, and a deep love of baseball’s strange, antiquated traditions. Miller manages to be both romantically nostalgic about America’s former pastime and excited by the innovative ways baseball executives need to think in order to survive and thrive in this current age of imbalanced spending and hard-and-fast salary ceilings for small-market teams.

Beyond all that, “Moneyball” punches Brad Pitt’s ticket into this year’s Best Actor Oscar race. Welcome to the party. So long as Sony campaigns properly, Pitt has an excellent shot at making the field of five for his charismatic, bulldog performance as Billy Beane.

Beane was general manager for Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics who, in 2002, buys into a statistics-based formula – mastered by protégé Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) – that suggests teams pay market value for overlooked players who come cheap but manage to get on base more often than not. And the system works. Just not for Beane, who – as the film informs audiences – is still trying to win the big game. But you knew that if you read Michael Lewis’s “Moneyball” book (which Steve Zaillian and Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin adapt into a compelling, even-handed study in human resilience).

“Moneyball” is structured like the Bible’s classic David-versus-Goliath tale, with a smooth-talking, flawed Beane slinging arrows at the mean, nasty, deep-pocketed Yankees and Red Sox organizations. Despite Beane’s manic obsession with baseball’s insider trading – he’s the prototype for today’s fantasy football junkies – Pitt’s five-tool performance ensures we’re rooting for this divorced, distracted father of one to succeed with his potentially devastating plan.

And that’s because Pitt assumes the charm and determination of a motivational speaker to inject Beane with the knowledge earned by years of experience. Pitt plays a man standing at the forefront of a revolution, but also a man questioning everything he knows about the sport he has loved since childhood. And he’s excellent. Hill and Philip Seymour Hoffman have smaller roles as the angel (Hill) and devil (Hoffman) on Beane’s shoulders, repeatedly telling him the plan will fly or fail. But this is Pitt’s show, and he connects with the fat part of the bat.

Miller, for his part, keeps his direction precise and his pacing deliberate. Wally Pfister’s baseball photography – when games actually happen – are Norman Rockwell-esque. Bennett’s crew knows they can’t move too fast, for fear of scaring off baseball’s faithful who are used to four-hour games and small pockets of suspense. But he skillfully incorporates Beane’s tragic history as an up-and-coming ball player to show how those past experiences informed the man making tough decisions today.

To that end, Pitt couldn’t play Beane 10 years ago. His own experiences as an actor solidify decisions he makes as a performer in Miller’s film. Pitt’s face, always handsome, is now interesting enough to hold the screen if Miller chooses to linger on it for long stretches, and Pitt has learned how to say a mouthful without using any dialogue. It’s a great performance in a solid movie. If “Moneyball” hits a triple, Pitt smacks a home run over the left field wall.

Grade: *** out of four stars

“Moneyball” screened as part of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on Sept. 23.

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