Million Dollar Arm

Some movies make you think “this just isn’t for me” and Million Dollar Arm is a film that seems made more for people who fantasize about taming Don Draper than anyone who loves film. This formulaic love story masquerading as a sports picture (likely to get that four quadrant appeal) may find an audience, but that doesn’t make it any less predictable.

The film stars Jon Hamm as JB Bernstein in what amounts to Hamm’s “I want a movie career” role. Sure, he may have appeared in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still or in Bridesmaids, but this is his first big leading man performance that takes advantage of his time as the star of Mad Men. He plays a sports agent who set up his own company because he doesn’t want to work on the “death star” (basically there’s one big sports agency in the movie), so he goes about hustling to attract one client who might save his business. But though that sets up a Jerry Maguire situation, that client isn’t reliable, and wants more money than Hamm  and his business and employees (which includes Aasif Mandvi) are in a desperate situation.

Watching footage of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent and seeing a cricket match while flipping through the channels, he comes up with an huge idea: India is one of the few places where baseball hasn’t become a national pastime (or of much interest) and the mechanics of pitching in  cricket are vaguely similar to throwing a baseball, so why not have a contest in India where he will go to find possible new pitchers? A businessman agrees to the venture, which sends JB overseas, and leaves his tenant Brenda (Lake Bell) in charge of his house. The only scout who will join him across the ocean is a cranky old timer (Alan Arkin) and he has to adjust to the more laid back living style of India. Much of the first half of the film is made up of his time overseas, and it’s a great location that hasn’t been explored much by Hollywood, so it’s at least interesting to look at.

Eventually he finds two kids, neither of whom are cricket players.  Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) win the contest, while Amit (Pitobash) comes along as cheerleader, translator and someone who wants to coach, even though he knows nothing about baseball. JB wants to give the kids two years to train, while the businessman behind it keeps cutting down that time. Once in America the boys don’t understand hotels or American ways of life, so eventually they get shuffled off to live with JB, who comes to realize that maybe Brenda, while not looking like the models he’s dated, is worth getting to know.

Million Dollar Arm is the sort of formula movie where there are few moments that actually surprise or suggest a path that isn’t inherently obvious. JB is going to go from a selfish but still likeable jerk to someone who actually understands the purpose of family and that seems to be the grafted-on narrative in place to give the film a more cinematic structure. This is supposedly given a slightly new flavor by the exotic nature of a foreign country, but that dressing makes it seem like an Indian dish served at Applebee’s. The film is not about two kids from India, who are plucked from lives of intense poverty only to get a chance to play in the (in this case) Minor leagues, but about a well off white guy who needs to learn to love, and does so in a way that could make him profitable. His story is the less interesting of the two, which is why the movie almost comes alive when the boys are left on their own. But that too opens doors of problems with race as you don’t want the film to portray them as complete hicks, so it settles for the middle ground. We don’t get to know them that well, other than how they are different in terms of religion, or the poverty they come from. But their journey seems way more interesting (though less marketable stateside).

This sort of queasy under-the-surface formula picture has had great success before. Pretty Woman was a hit because it was a risque take on a love story, while audiences fell in love with Julia Roberts and didn’t think about the reality that she was someone who got paid for sex, or what sort of man would pay for sex — that’s not what the film was about, it became about a new way for characters to “meet cute.” Here, audiences are supposed to be happy that JB managed to make it all work out, and fall in love, while his end goal was essentially exploiting a new marketplace to make himself and other people a lot of money. There are no speeches about the love of the game; there is no sense that what JB is trying to do is good or even decent. He’s just a man who comes up with a good way to maybe make more money. But, if we acknowledge that the pursuit of sports to keep lower class people dreaming about winning the lottery of being a rich sports player, it grows increasingly more problematic. Is it a good thing to infect poor kids in India with dreams of becoming a baseball player? Who does that benefit? One gets the feeling that from the beginning of the film that the real JB Bernstein thought his story might make a good movie, which leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

Alas, to give the film an arc, Hamm’s character must start as a selfish, arrogant dreamer who doesn’t see what’s right in front of his face. But as his goals aren’t noble, his decisions toward the end don’t reflect all that much humanity. He doesn’t want to discard the Indian boys he plucked from obscurity, but it’s not much of a sacrifice (nor is it played up as one), nor is dating Lake freaking Bell over — in this case — Bar Paly. Bell has always been charming, disarmingly sexy and often very funny, but movies don’t know what to do with her (perhaps because she has an Amazonian figure) not noticing their history of such women being the biggest stars in cinema. She too grafted a modest love story onto her directorial debut In a World, but it was to make a movie about other things and have a through line. It’s understandable that love stories are often the back up to narratives as it can give closure to lives and stories that can’t offer a better way to wrap things up. But what is this film about? Nothing good.

The film was directed by Craig Gillespie, who gives the film the relaxed sheen of a world where only the other people in the foreign land have serious problems (though they aren’t dwelled on at great length) and the hardest thing for Hamm to do is realize that when he’s in an intense pressure situation he shouldn’t lash out at those around him (which hopefully people learn as an adult not to do), and that he should have faith in himself and date people who look like Lake Bell.  Gillespie has been kicking around Hollywood for a while since he broke out with Lars and the Real Girls (a BS film that seems to have gotten over because of the lead performance by Ryan Gosling), but after this and the Fright Night remake, he’s currently punching at the level less than the people who normally work on Mad Men or Breaking Bad. The script comes from Thomas McCarthy, who seemed to have tried to find the humanity in the story, and make it gentle enough, but also seems to have wanted to get his next independent movie financed.

Grade: 4.5/10

Million Dollar Arm hits theaters May 16.

The Players:

  • Director: Craig Gillespie
  • Writers: Thomas McCarthy
  • Stars: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash
  • Cinematography: Gyula Pado
  • Music: A.R. Rahman
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