Silver Screen: Million Dollar Arm **1/2
The movie poster for Million Dollar Arm is a photo of the ever-dapper clotheshorse Jon Hamm wearing a sharp suit and looking content as he stands, hands in pockets, on a baseball field. It would be reasonable to assume this is yet another tale of a middle-aged pitcher experiencing a late-career revival out on the diamond, or at least that Don Draper has drunkenly wandered onto the set of a movie that was supposed to star Kevin Costner or Dennis Quaid. Look closer, though, and in the background you’ll see the hazy outline of the Taj Mahal.
That’s a pretty neat encapsulation of Million Dollar Arm, a decent movie that relegates its most interesting elements to the background in order to indulge its audience with comfortable clichés.
The über-charismatic Hamm stars as real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein who, if the movie’s too-familiar formula is to be believed, is down on his luck and on the verge of losing his business when he hits upon a big idea. While watching cricket on late-night sports TV, he has an epiphany: India is an untapped market of a billion people, and if just one or two cricket players have the raw athletic ability to become Major League Baseball pitchers, he could not only sign an out-of-nowhere talent but also profit from an entirely new demographic.
Bernstein and his Indian-American business partner Aash (Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi) establish a kind of American Idol-style contest in cities across India to search out the talent. That sends Bernstein on a trip to India for the movie’s intriguing first hour, where he and a cantankerous baseball scout (Alan Arkin) find their two recruits, Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), as well as enthusiastic translator/assistant Amit (Pitobash).
The Indian section of the movie crackles with the fresh energy of the country’s streets and its people. There are a few easy culture-clash gags— Jon Hamm gets the runs!— but also some more substantial interactions as Bernstein enlists a jovial local (Darshan Jariwala) to help him navigate the local bureaucracy and customs.
When the action shifts back overseas to America, the movie becomes a sporting-Scrooge redemption tale that’s far too pat and by-the-numbers to be believed. Bernstein neglects his two young charges while they train with a no-nonsense baseball coach (Bill Paxton) in favor of trying to sign an egomaniacal NFL linebacker who Oliver Stone would have deemed too unsubtle for Any Given Sunday. Bernstein also romances the lady staying in his guest house (Lake Bell), a staggeringly gorgeous doctor who he initially dismisses as “not his type” because she’s not a model, though Lake Bell is an actual model. She urges him to find the better part of his nature that puts people ahead of signing a big contract.
Will Bernstein listen to his better angels, turn the amiable young Indian athletes into his surrogate family, and manage to hook up with that crazy gal? Yes. Yes, he will. There’s never any real concern about that, as director Craig Gillespie does everything short of stepping in front of the camera to assure the audience that everything will turn out great. Million Dollar Arm is blunt in its emotional manipulations and designed to be easily processed.
That’s not to say it’s outright bad. Gillespie is an efficient director with a solid track record (Lars and the Real Girl, 2011’s surprisingly decent Fright Night remake), and the script comes courtesy of the fantastic writer and director Tom McCarthy, who found great emotional resonance in The Station Agent and The Visitor while dodging most of the clichés in his own feel-good sports movie Win Win. While both the writer and the director seem hamstrung by the feel-good Disney formula, they sneak in some interesting interactions and bits of dialogue, even if on the whole the movie tends to use montages to gloss over all the interesting bits.
An especially strong ensemble cast helps distinguish even the movie’s cookie-cutter inspirational sequences. Life of Pi’s Sharma perseveres despite having little backstory with which to work, and relative newcomer Mittal is emotive but restrained as the more cagey Dinesh. Comic relief Pitobash is a delight and manages to avoid seeming like a servile caricature; despite never once throwing a baseball, his character gets the most development. Of course, most of the attention is on the stellar Hamm, whose J.B. seems to have colonized the young men’s story and appropriated it for his own.
Maybe, like its sports-agent hero, Million Dollar Arm can open up a whole new marketing of movies tangentially about athletes. Imagine the possibilities: The triumphant story of Jackie Robinson’s accountant, the stirring tale of the pilot who flew Yao Ming to America, and an inspiration film about the rich white guy who designed Billie Jean King’s tennis rackets.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.