Million Dollar Arm is a Disney sports movie, which is to say you should walk in knowing exactly what to expect, a heart-warming film about people rising to the challenge, getting over themselves and finding success in the face of defeat. That’s what you should expect and, for the most part, that’s what you get.
Perhaps the oddest thing for me, was that it’s directed by Craig Gillespie, though he does seem to be making the rounds going from the edgy sports comedy Mr. Woodcock, to the indie dramedy Lars and the Real Girl, the comedic horror in Fright Night and now soft, family fare for Disney. It’s a curious directorial path, but he seems comfortable with it.
The obvious and easiest comparison to make is to call this film “Jerry Maguire light”, which is really saying something since Maguire is pretty light stuff to start with. However, we’re dealing with somewhat similar subject matter as JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a sports agent that decided a couple years ago to go out on his own, is finding it hard to compete with his more powerful and financially stable competitors. He’s reached his wit’s end and is looking for an answer when he stumbles upon a cricket match on late night television and the light bulb goes off. He’ll set up the baseball equivalent of “American Idol” in India in an attempt to introduce American baseball to an audience of more than 1.2 billion people. Thus the “Million Dollar Arm” competition is born.
JB heads to India in typical “fish out of water” fashion, jokes about Indian stereotypes play out with Pitobash Tripathy serving as something of a comic relief character and JB finds his two champions in Rinku (Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, the older brother in Slumdog Millionaire). Rinku and Dinesh will next fly to California, train to become baseball pitchers and hope to land a shot in the majors thus completing the circle and making JB financially stable once more.
I’m sure you can see it all playing out in your mind’s eye and, for the most part, it plays out as you’d expect. There are ups and downs, JB becomes selfish as he tries to land a big fish recruit while the boys are neglected, working their asses off and sharing their frustrations with JB’s guest house tenant (Lake Bell), which reminds me…
If there’s one major issue I had with this movie it’s that JB is an asshole for the majority of the film. Here’s a guy too bothered to care about the Taj Mahal, he’s used to living the high-life, driving around in his fancy sports car and cherishing his single life to the point it even becomes a plot point that he will only bed models. They take this to such a lengthy degree that even Lake Bell isn’t attractive enough for him. It’s so ridiculous I’m surprised they didn’t have her wearing horn-rimmed glasses with her hair tied up just so she could walk out one afternoon, toss the glasses to the ground, let down her hair and reveal her body in a bikini. I think we’re beyond the point of pretending Hollywood actresses aren’t attractive just because the script says so.
All the safe trappings of a story of this sort from the grizzled veteran scout (Alan Arkin), to the goofy sidekick with occasional words of real life wisdom (Aasif Mandvi) and the trainer (Bill Paxton) that points out where JB is failing with the boys and how he needs to show them some support. Guess what he does… nope, I’m not going to tell you… guess.
The best performances come from Sharma and Mittal as well as their respective families back home in India. When the film isn’t playing to stereotypes it has an actual layer of honesty, which helps it from becoming overly saccharine to the point it could have been on the Disney Channel rather than the big screen.
A.R. Rahman served as the film’s composer and he delivers seven brand new songs and brings along Iggy Azalea, KT Tunstall and Wale for three of them as it begins to play as something of an Indian themed jukebox. I’m not sure there wasn’t a scene set in India that didn’t at least begin with some upbeat song playing loudly over the top or in the background. Not like that’s a bad thing, but it began to feel like they were overcompensating.
The main reason I decided to see this film was because it was written by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor), but it was clearly a writer-for-hire gig for him as it is so by-the-numbers most any competent Hollywood screenwriter could have put this together. Though this isn’t to say it’s bad. It’s not. It’s a perfectly competent film that is everything it sets out to be, but it’s not exactly high art or anything that will be talked about four months from now.
It’s inspiring to see people rising above their social setting and accomplishing goals they never thought possible or even knew existed. This is a feel good movie and outside of a few eye rolls and the fact the end coda doesn’t tell the “entire” story of what happened with Rinku and Dinesh goes to the point of just how safe it actually is, but audiences turning up for this one aren’t looking to scrutinize the facts, they just want to feel good and feel good about the world around them. If you’re able to get beyond the fact JB is a chauvinistic pig that only cares about himself until he finds out if he doesn’t care about someone else he’s going to be poor and homeless then you should have no problem with this film, otherwise you might have to ding it a notch or two,