There’s nothing about the structure or progression of the story in Disney’s Million Dollar Arm that should surprise you. Even if you don’t know the real story that the film is based on, if you’ve seen a “feel-good” movie ever in your life, especially one rooted in the world of sports, then you can pretty much guess how things will play out in this film as you’re watching it.
That doesn’t mean it’s not good, or that it’s no fun to watch. In fact, Million Dollar Arm is a surprisingly engrossing and enjoyable story about chasing dreams and finding oneself in the least likely of places, brought to life with charm, grace, and humor by a talented cast led by Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm. It deserves your attention, if for no other reason that it may be a welcome break from the bombast and spectacle of this summer’s other blockbuster offerings so far, while at the same time telling a “based on real life” inspirational story that’s worth telling.
That story has to do with the experience of veteran sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Hamm), who in 2007 went all the way to India in search of baseball pitching talent to develop and potentially represent in the major leagues. The idea was to produce to TV reality competition show that would travel across the country and invite any and all to throw a baseball with enough velocity to impress a U.S. baseball talent scout. The two top hurlers would win, in addition to a cash prize, an opportunity to travel to the U.S., learn the game of baseball, and land a tryout for Major League Baseball.
In the film, while his business partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”) holds the fort in the States and tries to keep their fledgling agency afloat, Bernstein travels from town to town in India with a television crew, shooting episode after episode while searching for the baseball equivalent of one-time NBA phenom Yao Ming. He’s accompanied on his journey by veteran scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin) and Amit (Pitobash), an avid Indian baseball fan and aspiring coach who become’s J.B.’s translator, cultural interpreter, and ever-enthusiastic sidekick. They watch literally hundreds of Indian boys of varying ages, most of whom have never seen a baseball in their lives, much less thrown one, and in the process J.B. is immersed in the many wondrous sights, sounds, and smells, both pleasant and unpleasant, that characterize modern India.
Their search eventually brings them to two 18-year-olds, Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi), who know nothing about baseball but show enough raw throwing talent to warrant Ray waking up long enough to pay attention. The eventual winners of the competition, Dinesh and Rinku say goodbye to their homes and close-knit families for the first time in their lives to follow J.B. back to Los Angeles and take on the real challenge: learning the intricacies of American baseball while at the same time learning English and being introduced to life in America.
It’s an understatement to say it’s a lot of change for the boys to handle, but they’re not the only ones facing the challenge of a major life change. For J.B., a wheeling-and-dealing power-suit wearing bachelor always working on the next deal and looking for the next supermodel to date, it comes to mean more than just being a representative for his new clients and keeping in touch with them on his cellphone. Dinesh and Rinku represent a sink-or-swim investment for his professional life, but in order for that investment to reach its potential, he’ll have to change his whole world and be something he never counted on being or even wanted to be: a father figure.
With that kind of set-up, it’s easy to look at Million Dollar Arm as just another feel-good sports movie in the Disney live-action movie mode, this decade’s version of The Rookie, and the assessment wouldn’t be wholly off-base. All the elements of the formula are here: lots of humor, especially of the fish-out-of-water variety, a little romance, and a little self-discovery, tied up at the end by a relatively pleasant and predictable ending. If you’re looking for groundbreaking or genre-redefining filmmaking, here’s not the place to find it.
That said, what this film does really well is evocatively transport audiences to a wholly different world and culture, and shift the narrative focus away from purely sports and more toward relationships between the characters and their growth. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), working from a script by Tom McCarthy (Disney/Pixar’s Up), makes the wise of choice of getting out of his actors’ way and letting them put their talents to work getting audiences interested and invested in what’s already a great story. Hamm lets a little of his Mad Men Don Draper persona inform his portrayal of J.B., who’s not a bad guy but who is a product of the industry he’s been a part of for a long time, an industry that often treats athletes as commodities that can be marketed, traded, and sold. He’s a suit, and it takes something extraordinary happening to him in order for him to evolve into something more. Again, it’s not a new story by any means, but Hamm makes it interesting because he makes it all feel genuine. The scenes showcasing J.B.’s experiences in India are particularly arresting and enjoyable, as the documentary, hand-held camera style of photography utilized here puts audiences squarely in the midst of a vibrant, exotic locale. At all times in these scenes there’s the sense that nothing save the leads’ dialogue with each other has been staged or scripted, that the sights and sounds are just as they might be if audiences themselves were walking down those rural dirt roads or crowded, bustling market streets with J.B., experiencing his culture shock right along with him.
Once the scene shifts back to more familiar settings, it then falls to Hamm and the rest of the cast to keep audiences invested as the film hits all the formula’s requisite beats. Thankfully, they’re more than up to the task, particularly actress Lake Bell, who plays J.B.’s romantic interest in the film, and Aasif Mandvi, who delivers some of the funniest lines in the film with all the comedic talent and timing you might expect from one of “The Daily Show’s” regular correspondents. Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma, as well, do fine, memorable work here — like Hamm, they are at all times, comedic and dramatic, genuine and sympathetic. You can’t help but root for them and for their would-be coach, Amit, played by first-time actor Pitobash, especially in the moments when J.B. loses sight of just how much his new clients need him to be more present than he might otherwise be for someone who knows their way around. And as you might expect, Alan Arkin brings the laughs doing what he’s been doing so memorably for the last few years in films such as Argo and Little Miss Sunshine: play the irascible old coot who will do what he damn well pleases, no matter what anyone might say or do, because he’s old and he’s earned the right.
Bottom line: regardless of how predictable or formulaic it might be, Million Dollar Arm is a movie worth seeing. You might know where it’s going from the start, but unless you’re the most cynical or hard-hearted of movie goers, you’ll still enjoy how it gets there.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Million Dollar Arm
Starring Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Lake Bell, and Alan Arkin. Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Running Time: 124 minutes
Rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content.
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