“Million Dollar Arm” is a mild sports movie with a little dose of good will and local flavor. You can easily guess what you are going to get if you are aware of that this is your average Disney family movie, but it is disappointing to see the movie staying on its formulaic playbook packed with bland strategies including clichés and stereotypes, and that is really a shame considering that its story is about an interesting case of outsourcing which did happen in real life as shown at the end of the movie.
John Hamm, who will soon go through the last season of acclaimed TV series “Mad Men”, plays J.B. Bernstein, a successful sports agent who recently decided to run the agency company of his own with his partner/friend Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi) but has faced various troubles in their initial step. While they have to compete with a bigger agency which has far more resources, their financial situation is getting worse day by day, and they may not even afford their small office someday.
After going through another frustrating moment of failure during the opening scene, Bernstein comes to have more doubt on his business, but then he gets one unlikely but brilliant idea while watching an Indian cricket bowler on TV. It goes without saying that cricket and baseball are different kinds of sports, but Bernstein sees the possibility of discovering Indian cricket players who can pitch as fast as American major league pitcher, and he immediately goes for his idea. He manages to get a rich investor interested in this possibility, and he also persuades Tom House (Bill Paxton), an unorthodox baseball coach/trainer who is naturally skeptical about Bernstein’s plan but eventually agrees to join him.
The most amusing part in the film is about a culture shock Bernstein experiences right after he arrives in Mumbai. While trying to understand how things can be worked out in the city where everything looks busy and messy on the streets, he meets his local assistant Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), and then he comes across Amit Rohan (Pitobash Tripathy), a baseball fan who mainly functions as a comic relief in the film as always behaving like an eager, bumbling puppy dog ready to impress its owner. Amiable in his broad role, Tripathy often looks so goofy in his performance that I was actually surprised to know later that this character does have a real-life counterpart, who is probably a lot different from how he is depicted in the film.
Anyway, after Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin, who literally sleeps through his usual deadpan mode at times), an old, cranky veteran scouter who does not look that interested in recruitment, arrives as the last member of Bernstein’s recruitment team, Bernstein and others embark on their long search for finding their potential candidates, but their first days turn out to be disappointing to say the least. They successfully promote their talent contest on the local media, and many participants are gladly willing to try themselves, but none of them can pitch faster than at least 80 miles (about 130 km) per hour.
However, they soon find a bunch of suitable recruits as they continue their journey around India, and the screenplay by Tom McCarthy focuses on two of these recruits because, well, these two lads are going to win the ticket to America at the final contest to be held (is that a spoiler?). Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal from “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)) is happy to get a big chance for him and his poor family, and the same thing can be said about Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma from “Life of Pi” (2012)).
The rest of the movie becomes very predictable after Bernstein returns to US along with Patel, Singh, and Rohan, who works as the translator for these two young men while they learn more to speak English. While we definitely get the comic moments of cultural/social differences, there will also be a couple of big dramatic circumstances as you can expect from an underdog sports movie, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our ambitious sports agent will be more dedicated to his potential clients like Jerry McGuire as learning to be a better person from those decent outsiders and his kind tenant Brenda Fenwick (Lake Bell, who is under-utilized in her thankless role), a young hospital intern girl who is destined be his love interest despite his current preference to bachelorhood.
John Hamm does as much as he can with his dashing likability, but his performance is often disrupted by the uneven characterization and narrative in the screenplay, and his character’s changes along the plot feel artificial and disjointed rather than organic. Bernstein behaves like a jerk in front of his recruits at one point, and then he becomes caring after being reminded that he forgets what is really important, and then he becomes less caring later when that is required by the plot. While stuck in their stereotype roles, Pitobash Tripathy, Madhur Mittal, and Suraj Sharma acquit themselves well on the whole, and I appreciate that the movie does not overlook Patel and Singh’s personal struggle as the strangers in a world very unfamiliar to them.
The movie is directed by Craig Gillespie, who previously directed a quirky comedy film “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007). That movie works despite its outrageous fictional premise while being quite funny and poignant, but “Million Dollar Arm” does not leave much impression on me, and I must say I was far more entertained by what is shown around its end credits. Yes, those two Indian guys really got such a dramatic chance of lifetime in reality, but this passable sports film looks far more synthetic compare to their truly interesting real-life story.