Sports movies are almost never about the sport. Mostly the milieu is a colourful backdrop to a generic tale of men in combat, their troubled relationships and their struggle to overcome personal demons.
Last year's Oscar-winning The Fighter, for example, is virtually interchangeable with this year's much less good Warrior, family melodramas in which brothers are pitted against dysfunctional families.
In startling, stirring contrast is the true-life baseball drama Moneyball, a superlatively crafted, richly detailed account of a year in the life of the embattled, blue-collar Oakland As which rarely moves away from the team's stadium and its grungy locker rooms, yet achieves a resounding universal relevance.
Certainly, Moneyball, which is adapted from Michael Lewis' gripping chronicle of how Oakland As general manager Billy Beane lifted his cash-strapped team by recruiting players little regarded by more glamorous major league franchises, delivers that uplifting late-movie moment mandatory in all sports movies.
Yet for most of its running time Moneyball dissects all those romantic notions and Hollywood cliches about the American pastime by tracking Beane as he achieved a record-breaking run in 2002, not through lavish spending and traditional heroics but using the cheapest of all resources - his brains.
After another failed season, Beane (Brad Pitt) turns to the unlikeliest of saviours, a baby-faced Harvard-trained economist named Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) and disciple of a legendary baseball uber-nerd named Bill James, whose groundbreaking approach to statistical analysis revealed how games are really won and lost, celebrating the achievement of those grafters who never make it on to cereal boxes.
Defying his recruiting staff, a bunch of grizzled veterans who think he's off his rocker, Billy and Peter set about putting together their team of the overlooked, the unlovely and the injured, those oddball battlers who, they believe, will deliver wins at a bargain-basement price.They eventually beat more cashed-up franchises. However, the grist of Moneyball is the struggle to put together a winning combination as doubters, including the curmudgeonly coach Art Howe (a splendidly grumpy Philip Seymour Hoffman), circle like sharks and the media wonder what kind of madness has gripped the club.
It's unlikely material for a major studio picture, which is why Moneyball struggled for years in development hell. But the rewrite delivered by Social Network Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin has re-created the intellectual sizzle and pop cultural fizz of Lewis' book, providing the movie with a deeply satisfying dramatic shape that doesn't betray its true-life origins.
Sorkin has also delicately woven into the fabric Billy's personal story, a tale of a golden boy who had the firepower to be one of the game's greats but who failed to realise his potential. It is Billy's remarkable act of self-analysis and reinvention as a major league manager that drives his new approach to the game and gives Moneyball its thematic richness.
The complexity of Sorkin's screenplay is matched by Brad Pitt, who delivers his second Oscar-worthy performance of the year (after Tree of Life), one of those giddy, gold-plated movie star turns at once charming, impeccably calibrated and vibrating with humanity.
The measure of Pitt's wonderfully nuanced performance is the way he works with the rest of the cast, blending in seamlessly with the non-professionals - his scenes with crusty real-life recruiters are as hilarious as they are convincing - and bouncing off a truly splendid, beat-perfect Hill in such a delightful manner that Moneyball morphs into the year's best buddy flick. Sorkin and director Bennett Miller (who confirms the talent he showed on his debut feature Capote) wisely keep Beane's personal story to a minimum but there is a heartbreaking delicacy to Pitt's scenes with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey), revealing the flip side to the tobacco- chewing, junk food-scoffing, hard-driving clubhouse professional.
Up to now I've avoided the baseball cliches as ardently as the movie itself but after walking out of Moneyball - easily the year's best studio picture - you can't help declaring Pitt and co have hit this one out of the park.
Moneyball is now screening.