Hollywood loves a fish out of water story, especially a family-friendly one based on a relatively remarkable true story. Million Dollar Arm is a decent enough film, taking the clash of cultures approach to illustrate how a once powerful sports agent got the brilliant — and company-saving — idea to stage a talent competition in India to recruit cricket bowlers as possible MLB pitchers. The character here, named J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), has just lost out on a highly-touted NFL prospect and needs a miracle before going belly-up. While watching late-night television, he’s hit by a lightning bolt of inspiration and with the help of a billionaire, sets up the title reality show in the hot and heady Asian nation.
Bringing a salty old scout (Alan Arkin) along with him, Bernstein soon comes across a pair of prospects, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittel). He decides to bring them back to L.A. and soon our talented if untrained lads are sampling all that is good, and bad, about the West. With the help of a seasoned pitching coach (Bill Paxton), Bernstein hopes to show that foreign players outside of the Americas can make it in our country’s national pastime. He also hopes to tap into the billion-person possibilities of marketing the sport — and these new players — in their own homeland. Naturally, there’s a love interest (played by Lake Bell) and a fine line walked between entertainment and exploitation.
Million Dollar Arm is a hard movie to dislike. While it does Disnify things a bit too much (this is a House of Mouse production, after all), it also sheds light on something many in the cinematic or sports worlds have barely heard of. Both Singh and Patel went on to have minor/major careers in baseball and we’ve yet to see a tidal wave of recruits from Delhi or Mumbai, but when you consider how globalized our culture has become, shining even a fictionalized light on this story makes sense. Granted, director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) shows sincere mainstream chops, but the script treats the subject with the most superficial of comic crowd-pleasing approaches.
Yes, we laugh when Hamm has his slick-suited run-ins with Indian culture and we also snicker when Singh and Patel discover American decadence, but to what end? The whole stranger-in-a-strange-land dynamic seems better suited for a time when we didn’t have instant access to other places and peoples. Two decades ago, much of this would have played like subtle science fiction. Today, it’s almost an insult. Almost. It’s also motion picture routine. We’ve been here before, seen someone struggle to keep their career afloat while learning a little something about themselves. Cameron Crowe called it Jerry Maguire, and he didn’t have to travel halfway across the globe to give us such insights. Million Dollar Arm offers up the reality show/foreign country gimmick as a way of being different without having to find something truly new or novel to say.
Luckily, Gillespie’s cast can sell this kind of stuff with ease. Hamm flawlessly handles the transition from shark to sweetheart, arguing for a bigger career in film once Mad Men ends its run. As our wide-eyed upstarts, Sharma and Mittel try to find layers in their otherwise limited if likeable characters. Bell brings her usual down-to-earth essence while Arkin must have a clause in his contract that dictates the exact amount of screen time and type of lines he’s allowed to spew. Add in the director’s straightforward approach to storytelling and a generally endearing concept and you’ve got something grandma and the grandkids can agree on.
Certainly the struggles of two Indian athletes in the often unfathomable world of American sports was more complicated than what’s presented in Million Dollar Arm. By framing it within a familiar trope, however, the movie more or less succeeds. Call it a double.