'Million Dollar Arm'
Hollywood’s obsession with romanticizing baseball has led to some of the greatest and some of the cheesiest sports movies ever made. ‘Million Dollar Arm’ falls squarely into the latter category, but a talented cast at least tries to push it into the former.
‘Million Dollar Arm’ is one of those gently racist inspirational Hollywood stories that pop up every few years – one that mines laughter out of how ridiculous, silly and different other cultures are before proving that folks from that fantastical foreign land can get on just fine in America as long as they sublimate to our ways. Of course, the heroes of this tale aren’t the foreign characters, but John Hamm essentially playing Jerry Maguire: a sleazy sports agent forced to find his heart while struggling to launch his own agency.
It’s been years since J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) has made the big cash he needs to fulfill his ritzy lifestyle. One night, he catches Susan Boyle’s performance on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and a cricket game at the same time, and a giant clichéd lightbulb appears above his head. So, J.B. heads out to India to run a Reality series hoping to find a cricket bowler with the arm to be a Major League Baseball pitcher. He brings along Alan Arkin as a veteran baseball scout to do his crabby late-career Alan Arkin thing. Then Bernstein finds the villain from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (Madhur Mittal) and the hero from ‘Life of Pi’ (Suraj Sharma), who have the stuff to join the majors. They come to America for a few rounds of culture clash comedy and some heart-melting life lessons to complete the Disney formula template.
While baseball has delivered some of the greatest sports movies ever made (‘Bull Durham’, ‘Field of Dreams’, ‘The Bad News Bears’, ‘Eight Men Out’, etc.), it’s also by far the country’s most romanticized sport and is frequently mined for sappy weepies. ‘Million Dollar Arm’ is one of the latter. The fact that it’s supposedly based on a strange true story and got a script from Thomas McCarthy (‘The Station Agent’) suggests that it could have been an unconventional sports dramedy along the lines of ‘Moneyball’. Unfortunately, the Disney-fication process has smoothed out all the rough edges to deliver a movie pitched somewhere between a C-level ‘Jerry Maguire’ knock-off and a D-level ‘Crocodile Dundee’ knock-off. It’s one of those movies that plays cultural stereotypes about India for laughs for 90-minutes, only to toss in 20 minutes of grudging cultural acceptance in an attempt to counter-balance all the xenophobia. The movie’s not outrageously offensive, just depressingly old-fashioned. The general public knows more about Indian culture than anyone in the movie, so why pretend it’s still 1962? Not to mention that the film conveniently leaves out the fact that the actual Indian players signed pathetically low-playing contracts and never made it close to the big leagues.
To top off all the cultural elitism, the movie is told through the perspective of a rich white man whose grudging acceptance of foreigners is the story’s dramatic arc. Make no mistake, this is J.B. Bernstein’s story, and thanks to having Jon Hamm in a very Don Draper-esque role, the film is improved immeasurably. Hamm’s skill with light comedy and weighty drama adds a level of credibility to the proceedings, even if it doesn’t help with the believability.
In particular, whenever he shares the screen with the endlessly delightful Lake Bell, director Craig Gillespie’s (‘Lars and the Real Girl’) dead horse of a movie is kicked back to life. Bell has spent most of her career being the best part of bad movies. When given a comedic and dramatic sparring partner as talented as Hamm, the duo create a very warm, funny and somewhat unconventional love story in the middle of this collection of clichés. They’re very good together. In fact, the entire cast is better than the movie. Mittal and Sharma deliver much better work than their underwritten roles deserve. ‘The Daily Show’ veteran Aasif Mandvi provides a charming sidekick for Hamm, and even Arkin scores a few laughs with a particularly sleepy performance.
With all of the A-level acting talent involved, ‘Million Dollar Arm’ should be a dramatically better movie than it actually is. Occasionally, the cast forces the movie to those highs. All those names also suggest that at some point the Tom McCarthy’s script was as complicated as the story deserves. (See the rather brilliant ‘Sugar‘ for a far more fascinating and truthful depiction of the baseball immigrant experience.) Sadly, it eventually got dumbed and diluted down to a boilerplate inspirational sports drama. That’s a real shame, because the movie has potential that it occasionally reaches and could have been a summer movie surprise. Ah well, at this point it’s practically guaranteed that Hollywood will crank out another baseball movie to be released roughly around this time next year. Let’s hope that one delivers the goods.