The idea of Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie working with actors Jon Hamm, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, and Lake Bell on a film scripted by the formidably talented Tom McCarthy should excite any avid moviegoer. But when the project in question turns out to be a Disney-produced inspirational sports drama, it threatens to trigger the worst case of cognitive dissonance since The Straight Story opened with the credit, ìWalt Disney Pictures Presents a Film by David Lynch.î Thankfully, Million Dollar Arm is closer to Lynchís movie than The Mighty Ducks.
Hamm stars as JB Bernstein, a onetime successful sports agent who left a massive company to start his own agency, Seven Figures Management, with his business partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi). Unfortunately, his company is in serious financial straits, and things get worse when they lose the big client theyíve been grooming. In a fit of inspiration, JB decides they should go to India, find a cricket bowler, and teach him to become a pro baseball pitcher. He soon convinces wealthy businessman Chang (Tzi Ma) to make a reality show titled Million Dollar Arm, which theyíll use to find fresh talent.
Once there, he is quickly befriended by Amit (Pitobash), an overly eager man who loves baseball and wants to do anything he can to help. JB also brings in retired scout Ray (Arkin) to help him weed through the thousands of candidates who are attempting to whip a baseball at over 80 mph. While the going is rough at first, they eventually find a pair of eager and promising prospects -- Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma). The duo travel back to the States with JB, where they are tutored by Tom House (Paxton), a USC baseball coach whose approach to the game is as much mental as physical. The two young men are eventually given a highly publicized tryout in front of the media and scouts from numerous pro teams. Meanwhile, the fiercely single JB, whose personal life involves dating a string of models, begins to strike up something of a serious romance with his tenant Brenda (Bell), a doctor who rents the guesthouse on his beautiful L.A. estate.
McCarthy has given Gillespie a rock-solid structure and clearly motivated characters. The movie is loaded with likable people, and neither the director nor the actors ever feel the need to beg for our sympathies. Jon Hamm plays JB with just enough edge that we never forget heís a business shark first and a caretaker for these wide-eyed kids second; Hamm gives him an emotional distance thatís not unlike his work as Don Draper on Mad Men, yet is more open than his signature character has ever been allowed to act. Bell is funny and charming, Arkin is reliably sarcastic and crusty, and the energetic Pitobash gives the movie a comedic boost whenever it threatens to turn too serious or dour.
Accusing the film of being old-fashioned is like accusing baseball itself of being old-fashioned. It follows a very familiar structure, but thereís enough specificity in Gillespieís approach, and in the actorsí performances, that the picture makes you appreciate why these tropes work. There are numerous genre conventions throughout, and while Million Dollar Arm doesnít transcend any of them -- the fish-out-of-water comedy, the feel-good underdog sports flick, the romantic comedy in which the hero becomes a better man thanks to the right woman -- it is a winning example of all of them.
Gillespieís direction and McCarthyís script refuse to dumb this material down to make it more palatable than the obviously feel-good tale it already is. From the gorgeous location shooting in India to the surprisingly liberal use of subtitles to the fact that the characters never participate in an organized baseball game, Million Dollar Arm continually respects both its viewers and its characters. Sure, it has its share of ìmovie moments,î but those showpiece scenes are earned because the film wants to live up to its message, not talk down to its audience. The picture isnít about winning the big game, but becoming the best person you can be. Itís a lesson that everybody involved in the production has taken to heart, and in so doing theyíve produced the best kind of movie this could be.
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- Released: 2014
- Rating: PG
- Review: The idea of Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie working with actors Jon Hamm, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, and Lake Bell on a film scripted by the formidably talented Tom McCarthy should excite any avid moviegoer. But when the project in question t… (more)