Million Dollar Arm features a strong cast, an accomplished screenwriter, and a quality director - who ultimately deliver a solid but unremarkable sports drama.
Based on true events, Million Dollar Arm follows professional sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and his partner Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi) who have fallen on hard times - after leaving their high-paying corporate agency jobs. In a desperate attempt to save their upstart firm, and maintain his own luxurious lifestyle, J.B. founds the Million Dollar Arm reality TV contest in India - to search for undiscovered athletic talents that can be developed into professional American baseball players.
J.B. brings contest winners Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) to America for training - under the instruction of unorthodox pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). Despite hard work and good intentions, Singh and Patel, along with their translator/aspiring baseball coach Amit Rohan (Pitobash), have a difficult time adjusting to life in America - especially when J.B.'s interest becomes divided by the prospect of signing a triple-a NFL client. Unsupported by the man who plucked them out of a small Indian village, Singh and Patel begin to flounder - forcing J.B. to choose between losing impatient investors and providing the aspiring players with the proper care they each need to succeed.
The Million Dollar Arm story was brought to the big screen by the talented pairing of writer Thomas McCarthy (Win Win) and director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl). As with any "based on true events" film, Gillespie and McCarthy reshaped aspects of the real story in order to increase entertainment value and drama for moviegoers - as well as drive home several not-so-subtle themes. The result is a harmless feel good film that is enhanced by winning performances from its Indian stars. Still, Million Dollar Arm does little to differentiate itself from similar tales of down-on-their luck/cold-hearted sports managers that are made better through a relationship with one or two eccentric or challenging clients. As a result, Gillespie's film should satisfy sports fans but casual viewers looking for fresh character drama will likely find Million Dollar Arm to be a touching but ultimately forgettable watch.
At times, the narrative is engrossing - especially the portion that actually takes place in India. Gillespie captures a fresh energy during J.B.'s trip abroad that makes the Million Dollar Arm story distinct and evocative - until the plot returns to the concrete jungle of Los Angeles. Once back on American soil, McCarthy's narrative locks into a conventional tug of war between "the deal" and "the heart" as J.B. regresses into self-serving snobbery - with only ostentatious girl next door Brenda Fenwick (Lake Bell) to call him out for thoughtless treatment of Singh and Patel. Moviegoers who have seen similar setups before should easily predict how the Million Dollar Arm will play out, and while select scenes offer fun fish out of water moments and uplifting revelations, Gillespie never recaptures the spirit of his first half - failing to deliver new insight to the genre.
In spite of a formulaic character arc, Jon Hamm tries to build from his well-known role as Donald Draper; unfortunately, the similitude between his Mad Men ad man and Million Dollar Arm's self-centered sports management executive, does not provide a lot of room for growth. Hamm breaks loose in a few notable moments, injecting a believable tenderness into J.B. that helps differentiate him; yet, even with a serviceable performance, it's hard for Hamm to overcome the character's thin motivations and paint-by-numbers journey from self-absorbed jerk to selfless family man.
Luckily, McCarthy and Gillespie surround Hamm with charming supporting performances - led by Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma as Rinku and Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal as Dinesh. Sharma is responsible for many of Million Dollar Arm's endearing comedy beats, such as a newfound obsession with pizza, while Mittal is a quiet but attentive reflection of the pair's growing frustration with J.B. Together with translator Amit Rohan (Pitobash), the three Indians are by far the most developed and interesting characters in the film. While Gillespie clearly sets out to tell the story of a cold-hearted business man who discovers family and love through a cultural collision, the best scenes (and most impactful exchanges) come courtesy of the film's non-American actors.
Along with brief appearances from Alan Arkin and Bill Paxton, among others, Lake Bell (as pool house tenant/love interest Brenda) and Aasif Mandvi (as J.B.'s business partner Ash) round out the principle cast. Both are relegated to mostly one-note sounding boards for Hamm - where Ash is tasked with (politely) questioning any of J.B.'s more controversial decisions while Brenda tries to help J.B. see a life beyond fast cars and high-pressure deals. Fans who recognize the performers from their extensive comedy resumes may be disappointed to learn that Bell and Mandvi play their parts with straight (albeit entertaining) faces, creating opportunities for Hamm to remind viewers that J.B. is evolving (even if he stumbles along the way).
Million Dollar Arm features a strong cast, an accomplished screenwriter, and a quality director - who ultimately deliver a solid but unremarkable sports drama. Viewers will be affected by certain characters and scenes more than others but the film never outright fails in its intentions. It's a heart-warming and fun ride that raises awareness for a story that many moviegoers may not have followed at the time. That said, for a movie that praises risk taking and out of the box thinking, Million Dollar Arm plays its narrative surprisingly safe.
Million Dollar Arm runs 124 minutes and is Rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content. Now playing in theaters.
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