Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Tom McCarthy
Baseball has become an international game, despite its moniker as “America’s Pastime”. For the longest time, the game was for white Americans, and then Jackie Robinson changed that by breaking the color line. And while he was not the first, it can argued that Roberto Clemente broke open the door for Hispanic players in the major league game. Now, there is even a World Baseball Classic every few years which features some of the best teams and players from around the world. Certainly, there are parts of the globe more susceptible to the charm of the game of baseball, such as America, Latin America, and East Asia (Japan, Korea). But one of the largest countries in the world, India, is Cricket crazy and cares little to nothing about America’s Pastime. India presents itself as one of the final frontiers of baseball potential, talent-wise, but more importantly financially. 1.8 Billion new fans would go a long way for the game.
That is exactly what sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) thought when, after going out on his own with partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) from a bigger conglomerate, he needed something to keep his fledgling firm alive. After pitching the idea to rich baseball owner Chang (Tzi Ma), Bernstein launches “Million Dollar Arm”, a contest in India to find the first Indian professional baseball player. Finding help from a retired scout (Alan Arkin), a college pitching coach (Bill Paxton), and even a baseball enthusiast Indian named Amit (Pitobash), Bernstein finds potential in Rinku (Shuraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal). But after bringing them to America to train, he finds the cultural differences to be overwhelming, not just for the kids, but also for him. With the help of his tenant Brenda (Lake Bell), Bernstein begins to connect with Rinku and Dinesh, supporting them on this incredible, unexpected journey to baseball stardom.
It’s hard to deny Disney’s impact on a story, or rather a story’s marketability by Disney. You can like it, love it, hate it, or not even care about the type of story Disney often delivers, but it’s easily categorized as schmaltzy, sentimental, inspirational fare. Million Dollar Arm fits that vein to a T, but where it falters is in its focus. For such a wonderful international story to the game of baseball, the film takes the higher road by instead deciding on building its narrative around a rich American’s struggles to cope with less money and his lonely love life, which consists of models coming in and out of his, certainly not overly extravagant, but definitely extremely nice L.A. house. Million Dollar Arm missed the point by telling the story from J.B.’s perspective instead of from the perspective of the culture shocked, baseball newbie Indian kids, losing the spirit and underdog spirit of such a story. Rinku and Dinesh are the underdogs, not J.B.
The film has its charm, however, and most of it is manifested in the spirit of the Indian crew and the likability of Brenda. Suraj Sharma, who starred in Life of Pi has a charisma for the screen here just as he did in that film. Likewise, Madhur Mittal, who you may recognize from his great turn as Salim in Slumdog Millionaire, has undeniable screen presence. Tom McCarthy, whose film work which is typically top notch with films such as Spotlight, Win Win , The Visitor among others, pens a surprisingly broad script here which telegraphs the romance between J.B. and Brenda and also fails to incorporate the true stars of the film to a satisfying extent. Jon Hamm, who is certainly great in Mad Men, delivers a fairly wooden and uninspired performance as Bernstein, which does the script no favors since it leans so heavily on his story.
In some ways, Million Dollar Arm reminds me a little of Mr. Baseball in that the American travels East to learn a lesson in humility, a lesson he doesn’t seem to grasp until the very end, and even then I could question whether Jack Elliot, or in this case J.B. Bernstein, is really a changed man after the experience, or whether he is still hunting the same payday he was at the beginning of the film, only learning what it takes to manipulate his “investments” enough to get what he wants or needs out of them. Based on a true story, I cannot comment on the truth of this question, but the film failed to sell me on his full transformation, which is a missed opportunity. Bottom line, however, is that I would have liked to have seen a lot more of Rinku and Dinesh’s story, more of Amit, who is wonderful comic relief, and even more of what made Alan Arkin’s Ray interested in participating in this “contest”. What were his motivations, what does he get out of it? Million Dollar Arm is an inspiring story with great depth, but that depth just isn’t explored nearly enough to make it a great film.