Nutshell: I’d give Million Dollar Arm an B+. Though a few of the basics are cliche — look, there’s a gorgeous girl as the lead’s cottage house tenant, wonder if they’ll get together? — overall this film has a great big heart. Gorgeous, and eye-opening visuals of India will make you want to visit, and the Indian cast members will have you hitting up IMDb for more of their excellent work. Do I wish there was more focus on the boys and their life pre-baseball competition? Sure. But the film is still a breath of fresh air that’s thoroughly enjoyable.
As always, clicky on the title for the original piece!
Twitview: Dam Yankees said “You’ve Gotta Have Heart”. This film has it. B+
All I know about cricket I learned watching BBC in a London dorm room one summer. Which is to say, absolutely nothing. But I can guess that trying to make cricket players into baseball players has gotta be a neat trick. That’s the idea behind Million Dollar Arm, a based-on-a-true-story film that has a big heart behind all that sportsball.
JB is a sports agent that has started his own agency with friend/former co-worker Aash. They’re tanking, because it’s tough to sign fickle sports stars; ask Jerry Maguire. But JB gets a great idea; why not hold a competition in India, where other agents haven’t been, and groom cricket players to be big-league baseball stars in America? Cue the cross-cultural heart warming, and the growing up of JB’s self-absorbed heart.
Much like the real-life Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal had to pick up baseball very quickly for this film. But Sharma and Mittal look good on the pitcher’s mound. So does Jon Hamm, but then again when doesn’t he look good? There; that’s my obligatory “Jon Hamm is pretty” reference — I believe there’s a law that movie critics must mention his looks anytime he’s in something — let’s get on with his performance. It’s absolutely refreshing to see him ditch Don Draper, even though at the start of this film his sports-agent character JB isn’t one that fell far from the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce tree. Screenwriter Thomas McCarthy takes his time developing this character, so don’t expect sunshine and rainbows to instantly shoot out of his orifices the moment JB meets his contest hopefuls. Hamm inches toward that shift in character, which I loved, but folks who are used to crappier actors in grade-Z flops instant gratification from today’s films may become exasperated. When will he pull a Grinch’s heart and grow three sizes already? Don’t worry, this is Disney Pictures; it’s gonna happen y’all.
McCarthy, who wrote one of my all-time favorite films The Station Agent, does a great job balancing the script between JB’s journey from douche to heart-of-gold, and the boys’ journey from India to the US (and the culture shock that goes with it). Bridging the gap between these two plotlines are actors Pitobash Tripathy as Indian baseball-wannabe Amit, and Aasif Mandvi as JB’s partner (and oftentimes moral compass) Aash. Tripathy, an award-winning actor in India, throws himself into the role of Amit, and if stealing scenes were like stealing bases in baseball, he’d be this movie’s MVP. Mandvi — best known as his snarky alter-ego correspondent on The Daily Show — plays an Indian-American that has been completely assimilated. Bill Paxton plays Tom, an aw-shucks guys that looks at home as a USC baseball coach, which is a nice change from me hating his guts on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And the great Alan Arkin is a hoot as Ray, a retired baseball scout that agrees to help JB; think Clint Eastwood’s scout in Trouble With The Curve, but with apparent narcolepsy. Arkin puts his usual hilarious spin on the character, and also fleshes out what could have been a one-joke toss-off.
The goal of Million Dollar Arm isn’t to get Rinku and Dinesh to be “American”, it’s to get them to be good baseball players. That’s a nice change from a lot of films, where fitting in and Becoming is the climax. These boys are proud of where they come from, and if they’re fitting in it’s because they’re good kids trying to make their families and JB proud. Scenes that show Rinku and Dinesh alone, talking about what it feels like to try to accomplish what seems like an unreachable goal, are touching without being maudlin. More importantly, they feel authentic. If there was one thing I could change, or add, to this film? I’d love to see more about their lives, and how their winning affected their families and community. With so many breathtaking shots of India, it’s impossible not to notice the abject poverty so many people are forced to live in. Yes, I understand Million Dollar Arm is supposed to be a feel-good film, but a bit of information on where these boys call home wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) has a deft touch with the scenes here, showing India in all her beauty and her poverty. Wide shots of baseball fields and the fields of India mix in with close-ups of characters as they struggle to navigate their worlds. The only thing that felt a bit contrived was the love interest for JB; Lake Bell (Children’s Hospital) plays Brenda, a med student renting JB’s guest cottage. (Yeah, JB was successful enough to have a house huge enough to warrant a guest cottage.) Of course they end up together. Typically, I’d call Movie Bullshit on this relationship, because serves no purpose to the plot except to have a nice lady be nice to the foreigners. But there’s one thing; at the end credits you see that love story is exactly what happened in real life. Okay y’all. You get a pass.
Million Dollar Arm won’t answer any heavy questions about how the American Sports Machine has turned into a monster, or how it is that America in general goes into other countries with the self-entitlement of a vapid debutante shopping her closet. But it will give you lot of laughs, people to root for, and all the good feelings as the credits roll. Oh, and there’s an A1 soundtrack by AR Rahman that is going into my iPod as soon as it’s released. Play ball!