If Jon Hamm (MAD MEN’s drunken dashing “Don Draper”) is in it– I’m going to see it. But there’s more to MILLION DOLLAR ARM than Hamm’s devastatingly handsome self. The movie is based on the true story of a down-on-his luck sports agent JB Bernstein–a paler version of Jerry Maguire– who comes up with an idea to end his career slump. How about heading to India to find undiscovered talent, i.e. unknown cricket players who can be trained as pitchers in major league American baseball!!! Make the whole thing a contest to spark global interest, fly the finalists of the MILLION DOLLAR ARM tryouts to the US, and train them for a Major League debut!
It’s a Disney pic, so you can be sure there will be no nudity, senseless violence, flying body parts, or foul language– just lots of foul balls as Hamm and company watch thousands of contestants on a whirlwind tour of India’s back lots and big cities in search of the man with the golden arm. It comes down to two charismatic hopefuls, neither of whom play cricket, and we find ourselves instantly rooting for both of them: Rinku Singh–the warm, earnest javelin thrower with the flamingo stance played by Suraj Sharma (LIFE OF PI), and the intense, introverted Dinesh Patel played by Madhur Mittal (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). In real life Singh and Patel were signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates; that they only made the minor leagues and never really “made it”– didn’t make it into the movie.
But the movie does take its time tracing their circuitous route to and through the US, and fleshing out these characters and their backgrounds, their families and their fears, so we care about them from the get go. Hamm remains remarkably appealing as JB despite his continual struggle with his more superficial impulses. This may be Hamm’s most saleable quality as an actor. The film also weaves in a romantic subplot involving JB’s tenant, a smart, attractive med student named Brenda played by Lake Bell who takes care of JB’s pad while he’s away. They skype their way to a friendship and more.
There’s also Alan Arkin as a quirky retired talent scout who is such a keen judge of pitching potential he can tell how fast a ball is going with his eyes closed–which they literally are most of the time. It’s the kind of part Arkin is made for – a man whose few and far between utterances pack a wallop and crack you up. Aasif Mandvi (THE DAILY SHOW) and Bill Paxton turn in believable performances respectively, as JB’s business partner and pitching coach Tom House.
We also get a postcard of India from the Taj Mahal to the tiniest villages, the witheringly hot weather, the maddeningly convoluted workings of Indian bureaucracy, and the clash of cultures that catches JB in a crisis of conscience. MILLION DOLLAR ARM may not be the most inspiring sports movie ever made, but despite the predictability of its arc, it is well-cast, well-paced, well shot, and well-played. And like they sang in that famous musical about baseball DAMN YANKEES: “You Gotta Have Heart”! This movie’s got plenty of that.