MILLION DOLLAR ARM
2014, PG, 124 mins.
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.
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.
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.
one word, his plan seems crazy.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.