(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Brad Pitt plays the general manager of the cash-strapped Oakland As who ignores his scouts and turns to the recommendations of an inexperienced statistician to hire a winning team. In spite of strong opposition the statistical approach proves to be a phenomenal success for the team. Jonah Hill plays the odd mathematician and Philip Seymour Hoffman is very good as an uncooperative manager with fears of his own. Bennett Miller of CAPOTE direct Steven Zaillian's and Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Michael Lewis's book MONEYBALL: THE ART OF WINNING AN UNFAIR GAME. There are lots of films about baseball and only a handful of films about mathematics--even fewer showing mathematics in a favorable light. It is surprising to get such an entertaining film that combines both. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

Our world is awash in numbers. We collect and can have available all kinds of statistics. What is difficult is collecting and understanding all the numbers, learning lessons from them, and then deciding if the lessons can be trusted. I read a review of the book SUPER CRUNCHERS by Ian Ayers. It told how Orley Ashenfelter used a statistical approach called regression analysis to predict the quality of certain wines. He determined that he could collect three numbers: average growing season temperature, winter rainfall, and harvest rainfall, and from them simply generating a number that would be expected quality of wines. There are wine experts who use very subjective approaches and a great deal of experience to predict wine quality. They laughed at Ashenfelter's simplistic approach. But a simple mathematical formula turned out to be a better predictor than trusted experts with years of experience at predicting wine quality.

If that story sounds oddly familiar, it is almost exactly what happened when Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team realized he did not have the budget to hire new and promising players or even to hold on to the better players whom he already had. Instead he hired Paul DePodesta who was a Harvard graduate who applied statistics to hiring a team. In MONEYBALL Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) hires Yale graduate Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill with a name change from DePodesta) to pick unrecognized candidates. And the story of MONEYBALL is very much like what played out with the wine predictions.

The scouts were paid well for their gut reactions of who would and would not be good players for the team to hire. They criticize the new statistical approach to selecting new players. And initially that approach does not work at all. The problem, however, is not in the statistics but in the lack of faith in the mathematics by the manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who unexpectedly seems like he was made for the grouchy role). The statistical approach to baseball (elsewhere the approach has been named "sabermetrics") makes everyone feel a little insecure, and they resist it. When Beane seems more interested in Brand's assessment than that of his scouts, one can see why they are insecure. But even Hoffman's Howe finds his career riding on Beane and Brand's radical ideas. And what happens is the story of MONEYBALL.

One arguably bad touch is the use of relatively short and stocky Jonah Hill for the statistician. Apparently director Bennett Miller was exploiting a stereotype of what the public expected a statistician would look like. In fact, the real Paul DePodesta resembles Guy Pearce and is quite unlike Jonah Hill. Admittedly Pitt and Hill do play reasonably well off each other as opposites, but the pairing is cinema, not reality. There is some drama to Hill's portrayal of a man who loves a game that he is clearly not physically suited to play. Unlikely as it seems the man still manages through mathematical skills to make himself an important figure in baseball history. It is nice to see Robin Wright in a small role as Beane's ex-wife. Pitt gives a solid performance. Miller seems to have a natural directing style if a little uneven at times. He will occasionally have realistic overlapping dialog, but does not use it uniformly.

MONEYBALL is a true story about a cash-strapped baseball team that was able to intelligently become a winning team on limited resources. Maybe that makes it a perfect film for these times of failing economy. I rate MONEYBALL a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper