Movie Review: “Million Dollar Arm” — A Pleasing Baseball Movie Where Fact and Fable Meet

Given its its male-weepy genre, the “inspirational sports movie based on a true story,” Million Dollar Arm is surprisingly enjoyable.

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Million Dollar Arm, directed by Craig Gillespie

Jon Hamm in "Million Dollar Arm" --

Jon Hamm in “Million Dollar Arm” — Lord knows, the actor is capable of playing a character who can compartmentalize, no matter the fallout for those around him.

By Betsy Sherman

An inspired 2011 Onion piece bearing the headline “Jon Hamm to Overenthusiastic Fan: You’re Ruining Me for Everyone” imagines that the actor has held a press conference aimed at calming down a female fan who won’t stop gushing that he’s not only talented and good-looking, he’s funny.

Hamm’s unseemly litany of achievements expands: during this precious window of time in which we’re being given new episodes of Mad Men, and he’s killing as Don Draper, he goes and proves he can also carry a big-budget family movie. In the surprisingly enjoyable — for its male-weepy genre, the “inspirational sports movie based on a true story” — Million Dollar Arm, Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a marketing-savvy sports agent who guesses that amongst the millions of cricket-playing kids in India, there might be a few who could be turned into viable baseball pitchers. He devises a talent contest that will be broadcast in India. Two winners will be brought to America, taught the game, and, with great fanfare, shown off to major league scouts.

Suraj Sharma of Life of Pi and Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire play the real-life winners of the Million Dollar Arm contest, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. Young men who grew up in poor villages, they seem to be the perfect underdogs that this genre demands. However, the movie subordinates their underdog story to that of underdog entrepreneurs J.B. and partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show). These Jerry Maguire types left a mega-agency and set up shop on their own. The prospective client they’ve pinned their hopes on, a linebacker of Pacific Islander heritage named Popo, turns them down because they can’t give him a million dollar signing bonus. The contest in India may be the agency’s last hope.

The makers of Million Dollar Arm have indie-film credibility. Director Craig Gillespie made Lars and the Real Girl, and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy has had an amazing run as writer-director with The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. It’s not that this Disney outing goes anywhere near as deep as these little movies, but there is an intelligence that can be felt, a sort of backstop that prevents the comedy from going over the top and the drama from getting schmaltzy.

J.B.’s trip to India happens during the first third of the movie. Its travelogue passages are fairly conventional, as is its presentation of the type-A American businessman in a foreign country who’s rankled to find that the wheels of industry turn slowly and must be greased. The movie has an energetic hybrid score by Slumdog Millionaire’s A.R. Rahman. Audience members will likely share J.B.’s lump-in-the-throat reaction to the village celebrations bidding farewell to Rinku and Dinesh. A third passenger on the trip back to the States is Amit (Pitobash Tripathy), an enthusiastic baseball nut who will serve as translator and coach (and who may be there because three is a funnier number than two).

Back in Los Angeles, J.B. and Aash hand Rinku and Dinesh over to USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton in a too-brief turn) to train them in this game they know nothing about, in a language they’re just beginning to learn. J.B., even after he makes room for the three to stay in his swanky bachelor pad, turns his attention to further deal-making in order to keep the agency afloat. He doesn’t realize how the pressure of adjusting to these new surroundings (and to a new cuisine that seems to only consist of pizza), combined with the pressure to succeed as pitchers is becoming a burden to the guys. And it’s affecting their development as athletes. Self-centered multi-tasker J.B. will have to slow down, listen, and find a way to help the boys enjoy the game.

A key bit of dialogue finds Million Dollar Arm and its star at their best. J.B. is always telling the three Indians to “hustle.” They ask him what the word means, and writer McCarthy packs a lot of protein into this little nut. J.B. replies “Go fast,” and he literally does not want them to dawdle as they walk to the car. But they’ve probably heard it on the ball field too, where it would mean do your best, or even go beyond what you thought was your best. Then again it can refer to a con, which leads to the thought, to what degree is J.B. using these guys? Lord knows, Jon Hamm is capable of playing a character who can compartmentalize, no matter the fallout for those around him. And fans of Mad Men know what he can do with the smallest movement of a facial muscle. As J.B. begins to let his charges into his life—and become closer to the astute, funny medical student who rents his guest house (Lake Bell of In a World) — his physiognomy subtly resolves into the demeanor of someone who can be proud of what he’s doing.

Any rendering of a true story condenses a lot. One glaring absence here is an Indian émigré community (beyond the “no hablo Hindi” Indian-American Aash) that must have, in reality, been there to help Rinku and Dinesh adjust to life in L.A. And it’s a fair quibble that there’s not much baseball in this baseball movie. But in its meeting-place between fact and fable, Million Dollar Arm is a pleasing big-canvas picture.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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