Review: Million Dollar Arm
PLOT: The true account of how two Indian teenagers were signed by a Major League Baseball team with the help of a sports agent and pitching contest called "Million Dollar Arm."
REVIEW: MILLION DOLLAR ARM may be based on a true story, but it completely feels as if it’s been written by the Script-O-Matic 2000, that hard-working but predictable machine patented by Disney years ago to help produce feel-good sports dramas and inspirational underdog tales. This machine also helped make MIRACLE, REMEMBER THE TITANS and INVINCIBLE, and MILLION DOLLAR ARM joins those pictures in that it’s formulaic, simple, mushy... and undeniably engaging. Because while you see through the heartstring-tugging, you can’t resist - for the most part - the genuine goodwill and likability inherent in the film’s soul.
Initially though, MILLION DOLLAR ARM feels like it’s headed in the wrong direction by focusing on a character who is surprisingly unappealing and unworthy of our attention. He’s JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a down on his luck sports agent who is struggling to keep his small business afloat. Finding himself in dire straights after losing a top-notch client to a rival company, JB comes up with an idea that will either end up being brilliant or perhaps the final nail in his career’s coffin: He’ll organize a contest/reality show in India - home of the last untapped athletic potential - where he hopes to find a young pitcher who’s got the stuff to be signed by a Major League club. After preliminary try-outs, he’ll bring the finalists back to the U.S. to showcase their goods to the ballclubs, while the winner gets one million clams.
Of course, JB eventually finds his men, but before that we spend enough time with him to know he’s a highly irritable jerk, one of those “go go go” guys who can’t get off the phone and scowls at almost everyone he meets. Yes, this makes him prime material for a life lesson or two, but getting there takes quite a while considering just how impatient the man is. The problem is, JB is not the main character of this story. That is to say, he shouldn’t be the main character - the kids he finds and trains are who we should spend the majority of time with. It’s certainly a mistake in the screenplay’s structure to concentrate so much on the agent character when it’s clear he’s meant to be a supporting role in a much more involving, culturally rich tale. That said, no one can play charismatic jerk quite like Jon Hamm, so even when you’re pissed at the guy you can’t be too pissed at him. Hence, he’s perfectly cast.
But when we eventually do meet our other protagonists, the movie cheers up and hints at the greater story. Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) are two teenagers who have no experience playing baseball (nor the country’s sport of choice, cricket) but are willing to take the chance on a better existence that the prize money will certainly provide. Accompanied by an eager translator (Pitobash, who steals every scene with his amped-up delivery), the boys travel to the states and go through the requisite fish-out-of-water motions like eating pizza (!) and riding in an elevator (!!) while attempting to learn the difficult physical and mental mechanics of baseball. Meanwhile, JB learns valuable lessons like people are what really matter, not money or business deals, and everything he’s been searching for has been right in front of him all along (this is brought home in the form of his quirky tenant, played by Lake Bell, who I would certainly take notice of if she shared my property).
So yes, everything about MILLION DOLLAR ARM can be seen coming a mile away; the ups and downs of the boys’ transition to America, the way JB initially feels burdened by their presence (they have to stay at his antiseptic home with him) but learns to love them for who they are, the tryout that doesn’t go well and then the last-minute second chance of redemption. Writer Tom McCarthy (I was kidding about the Script-O-Matic, by the way) has seen and absorbed every sports movie cliche and dusted off his JERRY MAGUIRE DVD in the process, coming up with a very dependable, safe, family-friendly screenplay that has in turn been brought to life by director Craig Gillespie (FRIGHT NIGHT) in a wholesome, Disney-approved way. The movie doesn’t have a naughty or provocative bone in its body; the most scandalous moment comes when Dinesh walks in on one of JB’s hot girlfriends in the bathroom - and this is played for easy laughs.
But damn it all to hell, if you’re not at least mildly engaged by the rise-and-fall-and-rise-again account of these young men - who actually did get signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates - then you’re a cold-hearted bastard. The movie’s manipulative spirit, when combined with the very enjoyable performances from the three Indian natives, is just persuasive enough to make MILLION DOLLAR ARM a winning, though tad overlong, two hours. The rest of the cast is a big part of the film’s charm, with Gillespie having filled every major supporting role superbly: Alan Arkin is the perfect ornery baseball scout with a heart of gold; Bill Paxton is excellent as a sensitive pitching coach who takes the kids under his wing; Aasif Mandvi (of “The Daily Show”) complements Hamm well as his more even-tempered business partner. It’s a solid ensemble, led by Hamm who clearly has big-screen A-lister chops.