Brad Pitt’s Gone and Done Something Astonishing.

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Is it too early to talk about Oscars? Probably for most people (and never for some). But Brad Pitt’s turn in Moneyball is an exquisite study in what a movie star can do. And the better he gets as an actor, the more intangible the movie star thing becomes. What is it that separates him from other extremely good-looking men with ultra-successful acting careers? It’s that something extra that doesn’t have a name or even a quantifiable identity. In Moneyball, Brad Pitt’s got it in spades.

Moneyball’s a marvelous new movie that’s ostensibly about baseball. Now, other than the fact that it’s about twenty minutes too long, it’s so fantastically acted that you don’t even know you’re watching a movie. Pitt is at his swaggering, tobacco-chewing, rangy, former jock best here, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Not that that’s hard because he’s pretty much in every scene, but you know what I mean. And it’s really funny. You watch his features and might as well be sitting across a table from him – that’s how easy and natural this performance is. You’ll also instantly get how it is that he got this movie made. (Allegedly it was a tough sell but he championed it, and that’s what huge movie stars are for, anyway). Plus, he’s admitted that he was not a baseball fan before making this movie. You wouldn’t know it here. All you see is a film with as fierce a central performance as will probably be seen this year. Hence the Oscar talk. (FYI, there’s also a fair amount of Oscar buzz surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio’s forthcoming J.Edgar, as well as X-Men’s Michael Fassbender in a racy and possibly creepy new movie called Shame. More on those guys later).

Now I saw – and liked Contagion – more than a lot of people, and part of why I considered it to be such an achievement is because director Steven Soderbergh made people succumbing to illness interesting. And exciting. He took a movie that had essentially no plot (not much to see in the lab while they work on cures, either) and blew it out into a fast-paced thriller. The guy behind Moneyball (whose name is Bennett Miller and he made Capote) is to be credited with doing something quite similar, because for all of Brad Pitt’s bravado work, the central theme of the film is an experimental mathematical equation. That’s right. Yet Miller takes a very good script and presents the theory in a way that we can understand it, which is to say that he doesn’t dabble in the details too much (the thing’s called sabermetrics – not easy or riveting to serve up to an audience). The point is this film, while lacking the breakneck speed that Soderbergh achieves with his epidemic flick, gets you very, very vested in its story. Nor is it an easy one to grasp, because they are toying with something very sacred —  arguably America’s most beloved sport, a game as rich in lore and pageantry as the nation that spawned it. The groundbreaking idea here is that instead of  trying to take on the baseball teams that cannot outspend his, Pitt’s General Manager must assemble a team with unglamorous players who have traditionally been undervalued. He must use various formulae imparted to him by an awkward econ major from Yale who can barely utter a complete sentence (a perfectly cast and dead-on Jonah Hill).

Thanks to Brad Pitt, they totally pull it off. I was completely bowled over — and I know almost nothing about baseball. Nor is this an obvious fist-pumping “sports movie” – because even though technically it is a sports movie it’s all about Brad Pitt wrangling split-second player deals on the telephone with other GMs like some kind of commodities trader on speed. He’s just brilliant and the most brilliant part of it? He makes it look completely effortless. That’s what a real movie star does.

Today’s poll:

Moneyball is in theaters now. Voice your choice in today’s featured poll and tell us which of these baseball movies is your favorite:

1)   Bull Durham

2)   The Natural

3)   Field of Dreams

4)   Major League 

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