There are no stirring speeches, no magic moments, no naturals and no fields of dreams in "Moneyball," which is instead driven by the dry science of baseball statistics. If that sounds as thrilling as a Sudoku tournament, think again. "Moneyball" is a winner, one of the freshest and smartest sports movies in years.

Based on Michael Lewis' nonfiction book, "Moneyball" only seems to be a classic underdog story. Its sort-of heroes are the 2002 Oakland A's, a cash-strapped team routinely pummeled by richer franchises. (The film opens with a 2001 trouncing by the Yankees.) "There are rich teams, there are poor teams," observes general manager Billy Beane, played by a rough-edged but vulnerable Brad Pitt. "Then there's 50 feet of crap. And then there's us."

Billy distrusts the intuition of scouts; he's a former player who was pumped full of dreams but flopped on the field. Enter another not-quite hero, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, seriously good), a Yale whiz kid with a different, if somewhat soulless, philosophy. "Your goal shouldn't be to buy players," Peter says, "it should be to buy wins." Impressed, Billy buys Peter.

Aided by spreadsheets and formulas, Billy and Peter (a thinly disguised version of Paul DePodesta, now the Mets' vice president of player development) build an unexciting but winning team despite resistance from old-fashioned field manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The result is a history-making 20-game winning streak, but wait -- do we really want the bean counters to be right?

Initially planned as a quasidocumentary directed by Steven Soderbergh, "Moneyball" was scrapped in 2009 and later relaunched with director Bennett Miller ("Capote"), who brings a sleek, stylish vibe; co-writer Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") delivers his trademark slam-bang dialogue. Somehow, the film reveals deep affection for America's pastime while also acknowledging its cold, bottom-line realities. That's not the shower-of-sparks magic you normally see in a baseball movie, but a magic all its own.

Ex-player is more of a hit off the field

Brad Pitt smiled when asked if baseball executive Billy Beane's strategy of signing undervalued talent to cheap contracts could work in Hollywood.

"Not if they hired me," the highly paid star told reporters earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Pitt was in town to promote "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis's best-seller about the system Beane pioneered with the Oakland Athletics.

Pitt stars as Beane, a highly touted prospect who had a short, disappointing major-league career. He became a much more successful general manager, assembling good teams with one of baseball's smallest payrolls.

"This is a guy whose life didn't turn out the way it was supposed to," director Bennett Miller said. "He was supposed to be a superstar . . . but it took him more than a decade toiling in failure before he accepted that it wasn't going to happen. So it ends up being much more than a sports story."

Even though Oakland has never reached the World Series during Beane's tenure as GM, other teams have copied his methods.

"It's about questioning things we accept every day," Pitt said. "Just because we've been doing something the same way for so long doesn't mean that it's right for today. If we were inventing the automobile now, do you think it would run on a finite resource that we have to go to war for?"


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