A film review by Craig J. Koban May 22, 2014 

MILLION DOLLAR ARM jjj
 

2014, PG, 124 mins.

 

Jon Hamm as J. B. Bernstein  /  Pitobash as Amit  /  Suraj Sharma as Rinku  /  Madhur Mittal as Dinesh  /  Aasif Mandvi as Ash Vasudevan  /  Bill Paxton as Tom House  /  Lake Bell as Brenda Paauwe  /  Alan Arkin as Ray Arkin

Directed by Craig Gillespie  /  Written by Thomas McCarthy

Okay, Hollywood…it’s time to make a stand and take notice of Jon Hamm’s considerable skills as an understated actor and a leading man, because those thankless attributes are all on ample display in MILLION DOLLAR ARM.  

The sturdy performer – giving perhaps the most underappreciated performance on TV week after week on MAD MEN – has been rock solid in supporting movies roles (THE TOWN), but now he has a film all to his own to harness his unshakeable charisma.  MILLION DOLLAR ARM is a Disney “based on a true story” sports film that has echoes of MONEYBALL, JERRY MAGUIRE, and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE thrown in for good measure.  Even when the script segues into wanton clichés and predictable Disney-esque feel good sentiment, it’s mostly Hamm’s stalwart presence that effectively grounds everything.  

Hamm plays sports agent J.B. Bernstein, a persona here that’s not too unlike his iconic TV role of Don Draper: self-congratulatory, cocky, efficiently cool under pressure, well tailored, and an unendingly smooth taker.  Alas, when we first meet him he has hit occupational and financial rock bottom.  When both he and his partner Ash (the always dependable Aasif Mandvi) fail to land their dream client that would save their company from ruin and bankruptcy, J.B. is left broken, but still determined to turn things around.   One night at home he has an epiphany while channel surfing between a cricket match and Britain’s Got Talent (the now famous episode where unknown Susan Boyle sang “I Dreamed A Dream” to many a teary eyed spectator).  J.B. decides to start his own reality show/training competition in India where he hopes to attract some cricket pitchers (bowlers) with good throwing arms, lure them to America, train them to be baseball pitchers, and then sign them in the Big Leagues. 

In one word, his plan seems crazy. 

Yet, J.B is bound and determined to carry it forward on his confidence alone to deliver, despite the deep reservations of Ash and a cantankerous old pitching scout that they hire (Alan Arkin, playing the Alan Arkin role, but to reliably sublime perfection).  The trio heads to India on their mission, and while J.B. finds it difficult to acclimatize himself to his new cultural surroundings at first – not to mention that a majority of the men participating in the competition have no real baseball skills whatsoever – he does hit pay dirt when he discovers two potential prospects in Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) and Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma from LIFE OF PI), who both manage to throw the ball in the mid-80 miles per hour range.  Seeing potential and dollar signs a beckoning, J.B. returns home with Dinesh and Rinku hoping to quickly whip them into baseball shape, but the boys, rather predictably, have a tremendous amount of difficulty learning the ropes of a sport that they have never played before.  With a tryout deadline looming, J.B. becomes more and more distressed to deliver than ever.  

 

 

The players behind the scenes here are superlative, to say the least.  Director Craig Gillespie made one of the quirkiest, most peculiar, and surprisingly moving dramedies of recent years in LARS AND THE REAL GIRL and writer Tom McCarthy wrote the touchingly memorable WIN WIN (another sports picture) and THE VISITOR.  Both of them in tandem understand the perils and pratfalls of these types of rudimentary underdog/inspirational sports films, and even when the film does adhere to many of the genre’s more obvious conventions, it nevertheless still manages to take some nice and unexpected detours.  McCarthy seems more attune with fleshing out all of his characters here – including the worrisome and stressed Indian recruits – and does a lot by revealing who these people are with modest, but well written dialogue exchanges and interactions.  On top of that, the screenplay also has ample things to say about sports as an unscrupulous business enterprise over all other imperatives and the yearning for team owners to extend their franchise’s global outreach.  Kind of akin to the very recent DRAFT DAY, players/prospects here are seen as investments first and people a distant second. 

These themes tie hand in hand with the J.B. character, whom initially is self-centered and shows little regard for the welfare of Dinesh and Rinku beyond being crucial to his business model’s endgame.  If anything, J.B. is an exploiter of these young men, who were living impoverished lives in their respective Indian villages and then are quickly uprooted and segregated from their loving families…all for the sake of potentially making a buck and being a compelling story on ESPN.  Yet, the subtle genius of Hamm’s performance is making us ultimately care about this SOB morphing from being a lecherously self-absorbed businessman to a sincerely considerate ward to the emotional needs of his prospects.  The emotional arc of this character is unavoidable and can be seen from a mile away, but Hamm is so good at navigating through his character’s rather predictable path that it paradoxically never feels overly saccharine or unnatural.  

The cast assembled around Hamm are also stronger than the material they’re actually given.  Bill Paxton gives a nicely modulated supporting performance as the coach tasked with the nearly impossible job of making Dinesh and Rinku Major League worthy.  As for the prospects themselves, Mittal and Sharma have a great chemistry together playing their endearing characters, who also happen to generate some of the film’s best laughs at their own expense.  The terribly underrated Lake Bell shows up as well, playing one of Hamm’s tenants that, yup, will ultimately be his moral voice of reason in crisis and, yup, his love interest.  On paper, there’s not much really there for this character beyond being one that’s shoehorned in to help manipulate the plot forward and ease J.B.’s transformation, but Bell radiates such spunky and idiosyncratic charm here that you don’t care after awhile.  When actors like her and Hamm generate such amiable and natural chemistry on screen, scripting foibles seem to dissipate. 

If MILLION DOLLAR ARM were not based on a true story then I frankly would have found it to be sentimental, audience-placating hogwash.  Yet, Dinesh and Rinku did in fact beat out over 37,000 contestants in the Indian reality series to find new baseball talent and did in fact sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates (the film wisely shows actual archival footage of the news being brought to the elated pair just before the end credits).  All of this happened, despite the duo having never thrown a baseball before in their respective lives before the competition.  All in all, MILLION DOLLAR ARM is indicative of the Disney sports film formula, but it never is too slavish to it.  The film is dutifully family friendly and never really throws any substantial curveballs at audiences, but the performances swing truthfully away, hit home runs and keeps you thoroughly invested in the material.  

That, and the film is a rallying cry for Jon Hamm’s worthy street cred as movie star.  No doubts there.

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