In terms of its focus, Million Dollar Arm is lot more like Jerry Maguire (1996) than it is like The Rookie (2002), or even Slumdog Millionaire, an Oscar-winning 2008 drama that, on the surface at least, it would seem to have a lot in common with.
And that’s a shame, because this flawed but crowd-pleasing sports drama wrongly puts most of its emphasis and concentration on characters and situations (the sports agency business, primarily) that would have been the subplots of a (better) documentary version of the same story. It is explainable, though – this is a major studio film, after all, and Hollywood is much more likely to produce and release a movie starring Jon Hamm (TV’s Mad Men) than it is to do so with two relatively unproven Indian actors, regardless of whether they have real chops and charisma.
It’s to the credit of the cast (especially the aforementioned acting duo), and to the fascinating nature of the material, that the overstuffed, overlong movie works. And even then, it’s just barely. Million Dollar Arm starts so slowly enough it may lose some audience interest. But then in the subsequent hour or so, it gradually reveals just enough charm to overcome its many deficiencies, mostly in the storytelling department.
Based very loosely on events from 2008, this version of the story centers on Jamie Bernstein (Hamm), an independent sports agent who’s on the verge of losing his business. In fact, his partner agent, Aash (Aasif Mandvi), is ready to leave — unless the two of them can land a high-profile client with enough to keep them afloat.
Luckily, “JB” stumbles onto a crazy idea, during some late-night sports watching: He’ll go to India, and recruit cricket players to play Major League Baseball – or at least try out for some of the MLB clubs. Once he’s there, JB gets help from a motor-mouthed, diminutive volunteer, Amit (Bollywood star Pitobash), and an aging big-league scout, Ray (Alan Arkin), who would rather sleep than watch most of the cricket “bowlers” embarrass themselves.
However, this unlikely bunch of recruited are wowed by at least a couple of the would-be pitchers. During the tryouts, track athlete Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), the son of a truck driver, reveal some rough skills and abilities, even though they’ve never picked up a baseball before.
But even when JB is able to get them to the States, and to commit to the idea, it’s still up to a local college coach, Tom House (Bill Paxton), to whip the wide-eyed country mice Rinku and Dinesh into shape. Worse, he’s got less than a year to do so – spring training is looming, and that’s the perfect time to get the two in front of other MLB scouts.
Director Craig Gillespie and actor-turned-screenwriter Tom McCarthy both have smarter, better movies than this one to their credit (Gillespie directed Lars and the Real Girl, as well as the underrated, 2011 Fright Night remake, while McCarthy wrote the heralded The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win). Yet they can’t help but subscribe to the numerous clichés of the sports drama genre, swiping moves shamelessly from Slumdog at the same time.
And, while Hamm does have his appeals as a performer, his character is such a jerk (again, see Jerry Maguire) that it’s hard for us to care about his struggles. Some redemption does come in the form of JB’s medical student tenant and potential love interest, played winningly by Lake Bell (In a World … ). She’s a welcome breath of fresh air, in what should have been a go-nowhere role. (Given how much chemistry the two have, you can’t help but wish for them to be paired again, in something that’s a little more consistent.)
Plus, talented comedians/actors Arkin and Mandvi (The Daily Show) do lighten the mood when the often-too-serious film direly needs them to do so. And all of them defer, when needed, to Sharma (Life of Pi) and Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire). They’re really the best things the movie has going for it.
Jeff Michael Vice can also be read reviewing comics and television for Big Shiny Robot! (www.bigshinyrobot.com), be heard reviewing films, television programs, comics, books, music and other things as part of The Geek Show Podcast (www.thegeekshowpodcast.com), and be seen reviewing films as part of Xfinity’s Big Movie Mouth-Off (www.facebook.com/BigMovieMouthOff).