Your kids will probably like “Million Dollar Arm” a lot — and that’s all that really matters — but some of us wish this inspirational true-life baseball tale were more, um, inspired. An unusual story and sharp talents have been put through the Disney family-film machinery and come out flattened into formula. It’s an average movie, and that isn’t bad — just average.
The saga of how a small-time sports agent named J.B. Bernstein traveled to India, seeking cricket bowlers who might be converted into Major League Baseball pitchers, has built-in movie strengths: exotic locales, an underdog drama, the American pastime. And “Million Dollar Arm” also has Jon Hamm as Bernstein, dead set on proving there’s more to him than Don Draper.
It’s more of a struggle than you’d think, in part because “Mad Men” and its singular anti-hero are lodged in the minds of many moviegoers, but also because the script doesn’t give Hamm much of a character to play. As written, Bernstein is Jerry Maguire with less charm and more desperation, and he spends so much of the film acting like a self-absorbed jerk that you get bored waiting for him to come around.
Leaving his partner Aash (a likable Aasif Mandvi) back in LA to tend to their financially strapped agency, Bernstein heads to the subcontinent hoping to find a few good fastballers via a reality show contest called “Million Dollar Arm.” These are easily the best scenes in the movie: Director Craig Gillespie conveys the noise and colors of India and gives us enough of its people, in cities from Mumbai to Agra to Lucknow, that the film just avoids armchair tourism. The Indian sequences also treat us to the sight of Alan Arkin literally napping through his role as Bernstein’s hired scout. The actor has been so good in so many other movies, it’s nice this one decided to give him a little rest.
While the treatment of some of the locals verges on ethnic caricature — the hero’s comically over-enthusiastic assistant Amit (Pitobash), for one — “Million Dollar Arm” generally takes pains to see the humanity in everyone, especially Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), the two young athletes Bernstein ends up bringing home to groom for MLB scouts. Both actors hold the screen with the weight of the expectations their characters’ families and countrymen have placed on them.
Back in LA, the movie settles in to observe the boys’ collisions with American culture and Bernstein’s gradual thawing under the prompting of love-interest/neighbor Brenda (Lake Bell). Bell, writer-director-star of last year’s “In a World,” holds on to some of the eccentric energy that makes her alternately interesting and irritating to watch, but the screenplay by Thomas (a.k.a. Tom) McCarthy, writer-director of such independent gems as “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” is boilerplate. “These boys aren’t jelling because you’re not here to support them,” the crusty coach (Bill Paxton) scolds Bernstein. “They need to be supported. They need to be having fun.”
If only the movie were more fun. Plodding and overlong at 124 minutes, “Million Dollar Arm” is torn between Bernstein’s dilemma — will he sell his Porsche for a minivan? Will he lighten up and let the boys just play? — and a more ambiguous story of third-world athletes drawn to America by the promise of riches and fame.
“Sugar,” the 2008 drama about Dominican baseballers, is a fine and troubling variation on that theme for grown-up viewers. Since this one’s a Disney film, you know all will end in triumph and a shot of the real Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel as they signed contracts in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Just don’t tell your kids that Patel was released after two seasons and Singh has spent his career bouncing around the minor leagues. Let them dream a little longer — and maybe better.