Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) takes awkward, earnest kid Pete Brand (Jonah Hill) under his arm and shows him the ropes.

Story highlights

"Moneyball" is a fascinating portrait of a man who gives his life to baseball

The writing is always sharp and smart

Brad Pitt has a watchful, introspective quality

CNN  — 

You can’t get much more “inside baseball” than this: the story of how statisticians trump scouts when it comes to putting together a winning team.

But thanks to a great script by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, a quietly compelling performance from Brad Pitt and shrewd direction by Bennett Miller (“Capote”), “Moneyball” should appeal to audiences well beyond sports fans. It’s one of the classiest movies of the year and a strong bet for a ribbon of Oscar nominations.

Michael Lewis’ book chronicled the 2002 season of the Oakland As, when general manager Billy Beane infuriated conventional wisdom by applying “sabermetrics” to squad selection. Because the Athletics couldn’t compete with wealthier teams for the big hitters, he looked to a different set of criteria, and especially at on-base percentages.

It didn’t have to be pretty. If the As walked their way to the World Series, that would be just fine.

There’s a conventional revenge-of-the-underdogs scenario lurking beneath the surface: something like “Major League” and “The Bad News Bears.” There’s the catcher who is drafted in to play first base (Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg), the pitcher with the wacky arm (Casey Bond as Chad Bradford) and the star who spends too much time partying in Vegas (Nick Porrazzo as Jeremy Giambi).

Mostly, though, “Moneyball” ignores the clichés by keeping the focus off the field and on Beane and his new statistics guru Pete Brand (Jonah Hill).

They make a great odd couple, and because the roles have been cast so well, Miller doesn’t need to labor the point.

Pitt is the ex-golden boy grown restive with a game he feels he can’t win. Hill’s an overweight computer geek straight out of Yale, the only guy wearing a suit to work.

Naturally authoritative and at ease with himself – except when a game’s on (he can’t bring himself to watch but can’t resist checking in every other minute) – Beane takes this awkward, earnest kid under his arm and shows him the ropes: how to cut players, how to trade. It’s an unsentimental education for Pete and for us, too, as unexpectedly entertaining as the entrepreneurial maneuvers in “The Social Network.” This is the everyday business of baseball, a side we might read about but rarely see for ourselves.

The movie falls into a more familiar groove when the As season turns, and there isn’t much Miller or anyone else can do to make short flashbacks to Billy’s playing days anything other than functional. But the writing is always sharp and smart, it’s lovingly photographed and delicately scored (by Wally Pfister and Mychael Danna, respectively).

Yet it’s Pitt’s movie. Whether he’s brooding in the dark as the As lose again, having it out with the team’s recalcitrant coach (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a thankless role) and angry head scout (Vyto Ruginis), or trying to reassure his precocious 12-year-old (Kerris Dorsey) that his head isn’t really on the block, Pitt has a watchful, introspective quality that makes “Moneyball” more than the sum of its statistical components. It’s a fascinating portrait of a man who’s given his life to baseball and is trying to figure out if it’s worth it.

The movie itself is not a game changer by any means, but it’s more than good enough to make you think again about what success adds up to in the long run.