Talents clash in well-acted, poorly directed underdog tale

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3 Stars

Forget the Curse of the Bambino; when it comes to hexes, there might be none stronger – at least in terms of baseball at the movies – than this story of the Oakland A’s, their longtime manager Billy Beane and author Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Unlike the charmed journey of Lewis’ previous major nonfiction outing, The Blind Side, the page-to-screen process for Moneyball has proven, well, like trying to win an unfair game.

In brief: Real-life Beane (Brad Pitt in the movie) and scout Paul DePodesta were early adapters of an analytical system called sabermetrics, a math-based form of scouting in which heavy emphasis of a player’s worth was placed on his ability to simply get on base. The system tends to reveal that underpaid players are also undervalued, so one could, in theory, assemble a championship team on a tight budget. When the movie machine began churning, DePodesta wasn’t happy with his portrayal and his character was semi-fictionalized (played by Jonah Hill as “Peter Brand”); the adaptation was placed in the hands of three different screenwriters (eventual credit went to Schindler’s List scribe Steven Zaillian and The Social Network Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin) and just as many directors, including Steven Soderbergh, whose part-documentary, part-fiction take was shit-canned pretty publicly by the studio. Finally, Capote director Bennett Miller was chosen to shepherd the damned thing to the screen.

The result of all that shuffling is a classically acted, lushly photographed and laboriously paced examination of Beane’s struggle to be taken seriously. Pitt, in full sandy-haired, Redford-esque handsomeness (he’s also a producer on the film), is captivating as a divorced father, a public whipping boy and a handcuffed general manager of a penny-pinching organization. Alongside a toned-down Hill, with whom the actor finds an intoxicating chemistry, Pitt’s effortlessly casual mannerisms, from spitting into his ever-present snuff cup to the slow drawl that doesn’t so much suggest country bumpkin as it does reflect someone who lives and breathes a game that doesn’t have a time limit, are endlessly watchable.

That turns out to be crucial, because at well over two hours, during which the most exciting segment is a montage that incorporates real news footage with filmed reaction shots, Moneyball is as deliberately, frustratingly slow as one could imagine. It’s an almost unthinkable decision, considering Sorkin’s well-known reputation as a rapid-fire writer whose words are meant to be delivered just as sharply, and although the dialogue crackles, it’s dragged through thick molasses until some conversations just halt completely due to lost momentum.

Other choices stick out like a sore thumb: Bill James, the inventor of the entire system on which the movie rests and the one shared interest between the two leads in the film, is given all of two or three mentions, while Miller’s emphasis on Beane’s relatively normal relationships with his ex-wife and Lenka-singing daughter never pays off like he clearly wanted it to.

Still, there are magical moments (unsurprisingly, the best is when the film finally leaves the bland confines of Oakland and heads to majestic Fenway Park in Boston), and Pitt and Hill are a joy to watch together. But baseball curses are tough to beat (as anyone in Boston can tell you), and at least this one left us with a decent movie. Like Beane’s always-a-bridesmaid Oakland Athletics, though, Moneyball can’t help but be a slight disappointment.

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