Million Dollar Arm (United States, 2014)May 16, 2014
Movies that arrive in theaters with the tagline "based on a true story" often stray far from the historical basis underlying the narrative. As it's said, "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." Unfortunately, in presenting the tale of sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and his quest to transform cricket-playing Indians into baseball prospects, Disney has taken the skeleton of a potentially worthy motion picture and fleshed it out with an overabundance of feel-good clichés. The result is sappy, saccharine, and predictable to the point where it's almost painful. Thomas McCarthy's screenplay is an example of paint-by-numbers storytelling.
When we first meet Bernstein, he's down to his last few dollars. The sports agency he started with his partner, Ash (Aasif Mandvi), is on its last legs. Their big name clients have all retired and their best chance for a new payday has signed with another agency. That's when J.B. gets a brainstorm: go to India and, using a reality show called "Million Dollar Arm" to attract contestants, find a few good men to bring back to the U.S. and whip into shape for Major League Baseball tryouts. In India, with the help of a grumpy old scout (Alan Arkin), J.B. unearths his prospects in Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) but harnessing their talent proves to be a difficult process even for coaching guru Tom House (Bill Paxton). In the end, however, because this is a Disney sports movie… well, you can guess what happens.
Million Dollar Arm isn't completely devoid of value. Even though the overall story and various character arcs are soft-peddled, the movie provides some interesting cultural contrasts in a way that evokes the 1986 film Crocodile Dundee. It's a reciprocal situation, affecting J.B. in India during the movie's first half and Dinesh and Rinku later in Los Angeles. Crocodile Dundee was smarter and funnier but at least give Million Dollar Arm credit for addressing the "fish out of water" aspect. That element works better than the awkward romance between J.B. and a female tenant on his property, Brenda Fenwick (Lake Bell).
I found it odd how little character the country of India displayed even though about 1/3 of the movie's scenes transpire there. With the exception of a distant shot of the Taj Mahal, the action might as well have transpired in Generic Foreign Country #1. Director Craig Gillespie does little to make India come alive. The film Outsourced, about another American coming to India, succeeded in part because of an immersive sense of place and culture - qualities mostly absent in Million Dollar Arm.
For Jon Hamm, this is an opportunity to step away from the character and TV show (Don Draper, Mad Men) that have defined him as an actor over the last seven years. Hamm, with his leading man looks, has little trouble navigating the waters of J.B.'s transition from self-absorption to all-around good guy. Disney is selling the movie as the true story of the first two Indians to sign American sports contracts but Million Dollar Arm is more about J.B.'s redemption. The two young Indian actors, Suraj Sharma (who was the title character in Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (who appeared in Slumdog Millionaire), do credible jobs. Alan Arkin and Bill Paxton steal scenes in supporting roles.
At two hours in length, Million Dollar Arm overstays its welcome. The story, as related in this screenplay, might have sustained a shorter feature but the one that reaches the screen is bloated and obvious. The movie is typical live action Disney: family-friendly and simplistic with nothing controversial and an upbeat ending. It's a little old-fashioned. Unfortunately, it's also a little boring.
Million Dollar Arm (United States, 2014)
Cast: Jon Hamm, Madhur Mittal, Suraj Sharma, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi
Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy
Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Music: A.R. Rahman
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures