“Million Dollar Arm” Throws Strikes and Balls in Equal Measure

Million Dollar Arm

Million Dollar Arm (Craig Gillespie, 2014)

If you don’t mind films that traffic in ethnic and cultural stereotypes, then you might enjoy Million Dollar Arm, the new film from the director of Lars and the Real Girl (now that’s a switch … sort of). I’m half French, and there are certainly plenty of American movies out there that find so many different ways to make fun of my maternal land that I’ve lost count. Usually, however, I don’t have to endure seeing France portrayed as a third-world backwater. I’m curious to know what my Indian friends would think of Million Dollar Arm. Since it’s from Disney, the studio that’s given us The Jungle BookLady and the Tramp (“We are Siamese, if you please”) and Aladdin, to name just a few of their cute-yet-insulting-to-non-Western-nations films, it’s hardly surprising that there should be any kind of issue here. Just think of Rinku and Dinesh, the two young Indian men at the center of this dramedy, as Mowgli 1 and Mowgli 2. However, what most Disney films have going for them is a genuine sweetness of spirit and mission to portray flawed protagonists who earn to do the right thing, and Million Dollar Arm is no exception. It has a good heart, some fine performances and a touching romance, all of which help raise it above its shortcomings. That, and it’s based on a true story, so we know that in spite of its occasionally saccharine charms, at least some of what is on screen might actually have happened.

Jon Hamm (he of Don Draper fame) plays J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent who pulled a Jerry Maguire a few years back and started his own firm with his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi, very funny, especially when he goes to India, since his character “no hablo” Indian), but who now finds himself with a crumbling business, unable to compete with the big agencies. One night, bored and a little drunk, he watches Indian cricket matches on cable and hits upon the idea to travel to India to recruit the next great baseball stars. It’s the only major country that hasn’t sent anyone to the major leagues, and just as basketball (and China) has Yao Ming, he thinks India, baseball and, of course, J.B Bernstein, should have their own superstars. So off he goes to India with financing from a local businessman. And the (ethnic!) fun begins.

Bernstein sets up a nationwide contest – “Million Dollar Arm” – with cash prizes for the top two finishers, and travels through India with his (oh-so-funny-because-mildly-incompetent-by-Western-standards) entourage to supervise the proceedings. Since much of rural is, in fact, fairly poor, the prize money ($100,000 for first place and $10,000 for second) attracts a lot of contestants. Along for the ride, and a lot of genuine laughs, is cynical stalwart Alan Arkin as a retired baseball scout. Meanwhile, from back home, J.B.’s lovely tenant, medical-student Brenda (Lake Bell, most recently of In a World, and one of my new favorite screen presences), starts to regularly call her landlord on Skype (initially because of a broken washing machine, but later just to chat), and even though J.B. only dates models, a spark ignites between them. When, after the contest is over, J.B. prepares to head back home with the two winners, it’s clear he’s thinking of Brenda as more than just the person who lives in his pool house.

Ah, but there are obstacles still to be overcome. First, J.B. must set Rinku (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, the older Salim from Slumdog Millionaire) up with a trainer, and chooses the USC baseball coach Tom House (incarnated with casual grace by Bill Paxton, doing his thing). They’re not particularly good at baseball, at first, but start to improve … slowly. The only problem is that J.B. has promised his financial backer that he’ll have the boys ready in a year. Will he succeed? Even more importantly, will they succeed? And will J.B. stop being a self-centered jerk for long enough to think of other people’s welfare (and win the love of Brenda)? As I said, this is a Disney film, so you can guess how it ends. Still, in spite of its flaws, the film has genuine pep, and when we see the final credit-sequence footage of the real Rinku and Dinesh, that adds a moving real-world dimension to the scripted and sometimes pat conclusion we have just watched. It’s a feel-good movie, if you choose to feel good about it.

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