'Moneyball' (PG-13)

The great American game of baseball has generated more good movies than practically any other sport (boxing is probably a close second). But there has never been a baseball picture quite like Moneyball – a film where most of the action takes place not on the field, but inside the offices of general managers and team owners.

Adapted from Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book by the formidable writing team of Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), and directed with a refreshing maturity and respect for the audience’s intelligence by Bennett Miller (Capote), the movie is an absolute triumph of culturally relevant filmmaking – a film that will thrill and fascinate sport junkies and non-fans alike. If you like baseball, you will love this movie. If you hate baseball, you will still love this movie.

Brad Pitt, delivering the best and most complex performance of his career, stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s who watched his team lose to the New York Yankees in 2001 in an elimination game for the World Series. Beane was faced with an impossible situation: His operating budget of $39 million simply couldn’t compete with the deeper pockets of other teams (the Yankees’ budget that year was $114 million). Without the cash to lure the best players, Beane had no way to remain in the race for the pennant. In an early scene in the film, he meets with the A’s owner, explains his dilemma and begs for more money, only to be told that the A’s are a small-market team and that he should forget about competing with the big boys.

But Beane, who passed up a free ride to Stanford as a teenager in order to play in the major leagues and failed miserably, isn’t content with settling. There has to be a way to remain viable without paying players outrageous salaries. When he meets Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill, in a revelatory performance), a young economics major who works for the Cleveland Indians with an uncanny talent for crunching numbers and statistics, Beane immediately senses he’s onto something. “Baseball thinking is medieval,” Peter tells him, calling the sport an epidemic failure of mismanaged teams and misjudged players.

Beane hires the numbers whiz away from the Indians and immediately puts him to work, building a team of players whose statistics may not be all that impressive, but who together could make a formidable squad. Although Moneyball is set ten years in the past, the movie could not be more relevant to the present-day. This is an exploration of how to do more with less – how to think outside the box and break established conventions when the money and resources have dried up and a radical new way of doing things is necessary in order to survive.

Pitt, who has grown from a pretty face to one of the best actors of his generation, gives the performance of his career as the pragmatic, indefatigable Beane. He refuses to take no for an answer, even when everyone around him tells him he’s tilting at windmills. He has the physical grace of a former athlete and the realistic outlook of a businessman: When he has to fire one of his players, he looks him straight in the eye and breaks the news without the slightest bit of emotion or condescension. He’s a realist who knows baseball is a business, but he has the heart of a player, and he wants to win – or at least be competitive enough to remain in the game – not just for monetary gain, but for the thrill of victory.

Moneyball is often very funny: When the A’s talent scouts meet to talk about prospective recruits for the upcoming season, one of them rules out a potential player because he has an ugly girlfriend, which means he lacks self-confidence. Hill (Superbad, Funny People) is perfect as the eager-to-please genius, who always initially answers questions with what he thinks people want to hear, then tells the truth when pushed to cut to the chase. He and Pitt make a wonderful pair: They bounce off each other like seasoned comedians.

Moneyball makes time to give us glimpses into Beane’s personal life: He’s a divorced father with a daughter (Kerris Dorsey) who adores him, and a scene in which he visits his ex-wife and her new husband (played by Robin Wright Penn and Spike Jonze) perfectly captures the awkwardness and veiled resentment of a former couple who are trying to play nice for the sake of their child.

Moneyball works better if you don’t know what happened in 2002, when Beane used his computer-generated strategy of taking on players whose statistics were solid but not impressive – a strategy that deeply irritated the team’s manager, played with hilarious fury by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But even if you’re familiar with how that fateful season turned out, Moneyball still makes for utterly absorbing, resonant entertainment – the true story of a man who changed the way professional baseball is played, and in the process paved the way for an entirely new way of running a business. This resplendent, rousing picture – by far the best I’ve seen this year – is the kind that only comes along once every few years: It’s a perfect movie that doesn’t strike a single false note.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris Pratt, Stephen Bishop, Kerris Dorsey, Robin Wright Penn.

Director: Bennett Miller.

Screenwriters: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin. Based on the book by Michael Lewis.

Producers: Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz, Scott Rudin.

A Sony Pictures release. Running time: 133 minutes. Locker-room vulgar language. Opens Sept. 23 at area theaters.