September 23, 2011 at 1:00 am

'Moneyball' with Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill a double play

Tom Long reviews 'Moneyball'
Tom Long reviews 'Moneyball': Starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

'Moneyball" works for one reason only: The chemistry between Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill.

This ultimate odd couple — 40-something pretty boy and portly 20-something nerd — propels a film that is something of an oddity itself. First off, most movies about baseball bomb. And this is a baseball movie that's not even about baseball. It's about baseball statistics. Talk about a scintillating topic.

Of course, in actuality it's about much more than just numbers. It's about change. It's about innovation. It's about transforming a system.

But when it comes down to it, it's also about people. And without Pitt and Hill bouncing off each other so successfully, "Moneyball" would just be so much inside sports mumbo-jumbo.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, a onetime baseball prodigy who fizzled as a big league player but ended up general manager of the Oakland Athletics in the early 2000s.

Oakland being a secondary market team, Beane doesn't have the kind of money to spend on players that teams in New York or Boston do; most of his good players eventually get stolen by richer teams.

Then Beane meets Peter Brand (Hill), a highly educated statistician laboring in Cleveland who, when prompted, regurgitates all sorts of reasons why the way baseball works — the scouting, drafting, the money — isn't really working.

A bit too easily, Beane becomes a believer. Next thing you know, all the old-time scouts in Oakland — who rely on insights such as "He's got a good face" — find that Brand is turning their world upside down.

Oakland is soon buying other teams' rejects, turning a catcher into a first baseman (Chris Pratt), and loading up on supposed has-beens such as David Justice (Stephen Bishop).

As a team, they initially stink. But much of that has to do with the grumpy coach (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, alarmingly dour) who both disagrees with Brand's approach and wants a contract extension.

Beane, who has an ex-wife (hardly seen Robin Wright) and young daughter (Kerris Dorsey), sees his entire career on the line. And then things start to click.

Much has been made, and likely will be made, about the accuracy of the story here. Beane is real; Brand is apparently a fictional composite. And the true success of a computer-driven approach to assembling pro baseball teams remains a question for some. But the movement did begin in Oakland.

What's beyond question is the way Pitt and Hill work off each other. Beane is the lifelong golden boy still frustrated by never making it to the top; Brand is the smartest guy in the room who has always been ignored. He has complete confidence in his system, and Beane sets him free to live his dream.

Hill's deadpan demeanor contrasts beautifully with Pitt's passion, and the film is completely enjoyable when they share the screen.

When they don't, things falter. Director Bennett Miller ("Capote") returns to Beane's playing career a bit too often, and the film at 133 minutes lingers long on its Big Star. Yeah, we know that's Brad Pitt up on screen.

Still, "Moneyball" turns an unlikely subject interesting, making a professional sport the nexus where past and future collide.

tlong@detnews.com

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Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in “Moneyball” / Columbia TriStar