Echoes of Jerry Maguire and Slumdog Millionaire ping through Million Dollar Arm, Disney’s latest inspirational true-story sports movie (Invincible, Miracle) which gets partway to home base but fades by trading scrappy for sappy.
Initially, Million Dollar Arm appears about to bypass the predictability of a typical Cinderella story in its tale of two young men from rural India who get their shot at the American Dream, baseball style.
Screenwriter Thomas McCarthy (Win-Win, a superior showcase of his talents) and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm don’t pull back from letting real-life L.A. sports agent J.B. Bernstein come across as less than heroic. In fact, he’s self-obsessed, impatient and occasionally, a 14-carat jerk.
As Bernstein, Hamm works a Don Draper scruff and a distractingly perpetually husky voice to play a slick dude who is hardly hitting them out of the park after starting his own agency with pal Ash (Aasif Mandvi).
Broke, unable to convince a big-name football player to ink a deal and loath to experience a halt to his supermodel-luring lifestyle, Bernstein’s channel-surfing exposure to cricket and TV contest songbird Susan Boyle fosters an idea to look for a major league pitching sensation in an unlikely place: India.
Fuelled by visions of Yao Ming doing slam dunks while bringing a whole new audience to the sport, Bernstein assumes there is raw pitching talent among the cricket-crazy population. An India-wide, American Idol-style competition called Million Dollar Arm promises big bucks to a winner and runner-up, a trip to U.S. training camp and an eventual major league tryout.
Set to Oscar winner A.R. Rahman’s energetic score, the movie sees Bernstein arrive in India and struggle to keep his dinners down and his spirits up. Accompanied on a multi-city tryout tour by agreeable local fixer Amit (Pitobash) and American baseball scout Ray (Alan Arkin playing yet another curmudgeon), he’s shocked to realize that cricket bowlers don’t present a wellspring of golden arms.
Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl and TV’s United States of Tara) pulls heartstrings effectively when the lads, with Bernstein in tow, make a final stop in their village to say goodbye to worried families. Gyula Pados’s (The Duchess) gorgeous cinematography is never less than lovely but is less effective when the action switches to Atlanta (standing in for L.A.).
Bernstein’s nightly Skype chats with his guest house tenant Brenda (an underused Lake Bell), start out being about broken washing machines but evolve into something more. Could it be he’s falling for the non-model? But Bernstein isn’t one for nuance. He’s got a business to run.
Rinku (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionarie) are charming and completely likable as the eager-to-please, naïve rural guys who make the final cut. They’re only too happy to let Bernstein take them to L.A. and treat them like annoyances until they pay off. When one upchucks in Bernstein’s Porsche, you want to applaud.
After the obligatory fish-out-of-water encounters with elevators and a hotel fire alarm, they end up bunking at Bernstein’s place, along with the eternally optimistic Amit. Bernstein embraces the role of absentee dad in this new dysfunctional family as Rinku and Dinesh struggle with homesickness and fear of failure.
They can’t grasp the mechanics of baseball. Truth is, they don’t even play cricket at home, something Bernstein failed to ask them until they were en route to the airport. They feel terrible about letting their patron down, but Bernstein only sees fleeing dollar signs.
With Bill Paxton’s baseball training guru sagely reminding Bernstein this is supposed to be fun and Brenda being the one to actually listen to the rookies while letting Bernstein know he’s falling down on the job of being a decent person, Million Dollar Arm makes a sudden shift into Disney territory. The self-absorbed sports agent discovers his conscience and there’s a romantic dinner à deux being served by the pool.
It all makes Million Dollar Arm a simple sports movie that is pleasing enough yet all-too forgettable. But there’s that terrific soundtrack and watching Jon Hamm for two hours is hardly a waste of anybody’s time.