Film Review: Million Dollar Arm

Disney’s attempt to merge Hollywood and Bollywood into a heart-warming sports comedy falls flat.

May 16, 2014 at 2:15 pm
Film Review: Million Dollar Arm
Courtesy photo.

Million Dollar Arm | C-

The appeal of sports lies in its constant surprises. Despite all the glitz, hoopla, and mountains of cash, on any given night, even a palooka has a puncher’s chance of victory. Hollywood, on the other hand, abhors authenticity, preferring to rig the game at all costs and never deigning to show us the agony of defeat. Disney’s Million Dollar Arm is a glossy, faux-sentimental attempt to strip-mine the successful elements of crowd-pleasing pictures like The Blind Side, Jerry Maguire, and Slumdog Millionaire and, in its well-made but fraudulent style, is a sports movie for people who hate sports. This is a fabricated myth that bears the deathly “based on a true story” label, but never questions whether the obscure inspirational story it’s hawking is worth celebrating at all.

Jon Hamm stars as J.B. Bernstein, a once-hot player’s agent who finds that his big-name clients have all retired, and the business is swiftly passing him by. With bills mounting and options dimming, J.B. gets a flash of inspiration from his partner’s (Aasif Mandvi) obsession with cricket. He stumbles onto the notion that cricket bowling isn’t all that different from pitching. Somewhere on the vast subcontinent of India, he thinks, there must be someone who can throw a decent fastball, which could provide Major League Baseball with nearly two billion potential fans. With the backing of a Chinese-American tycoon and a modicum of help from a grumpy, half-asleep scout (Alan Arkin in his usual role of amusing coot), J.B. sets off on a prolonged talent search that morphs into a reality show to fund the whole project. The effort appears to be a disaster initially, but after much struggle and hacky jokes about digesting Indian food, our colonialist heroes manage to dig up some prospects, Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), a pair of country bumpkins who’ve never strayed far from their little villages. 

The action then shifts back to L.A., where it becomes apparent that this isn’t a sports movie at all, but a fish-out-of-water comedy, a romance, a heartwarming family drama, and more. After a mishap with a hotel elevator, J.B. moves the boys and their interpreter (scene-stealing Bollywood comic Pitobash) into his bachelor-pad oasis, and the power broker is forced to be a surrogate father. Our playboy is also forced to consider whether his gorgeous, funny, med-student-and-more-age-appropriate neighbor, Brenda (Lake Bell), is worth committing to instead of the parade of 22-year-old bimbos he’s accustomed to. Golly, what a tough decision. 

As the brilliant but tormented ad exec Don Draper on AMC’s Mad Men, star Jon Hamm specializes in mixing cool seduction with seething resentment, until the conflicting traits seem to vanish into each other. Here, he’s mostly just a glowering, self-involved creep who takes two-thirds of the running time to figure out how great his life is. 

Aside from a few training montages, there’s very little actual baseball in the film. It fails to explore what it really takes to shape a raw talent into a professional athlete. Instead, the story of the boys’ journey is merely set dressing to the real theme: how exposure to the scary Third World helps a callow, rich, white guy mature and regain his moneymaking mojo. The screenplay by the usually charming Tom McCarthy is, at turns, cloying and insulting, and seems to be supporting contradictory values. The movie has the audacity to slag off the alleged phoniness of exploiting young foreigners as a promotional ploy, while itself being a shameless exercise in forced multicultural marketing. As smoothly trimmed as a mouse-shaped topiary at Disneyland, Million Dollar Arm might be courting international viewers, but it’s most happy congratulating its mainstream domestic audience for magnanimously offering a glimpse of the American Dream — even if reaching that dream is harder than pitching a perfect game. 

Million Dollar Arm is rated PG, runs 124 minutes, and is in theaters now.