Sunday, November 16, 2014

Million Dollar Arm

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Bill Paxton, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Pitobash Tripathy, Rey Maualuga
Running Time: 124 min.
Rating: PG

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

It's entirely possible you've seen or heard Disney's Million Dollar Arm being described as "Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire." While that's understandable, a better comparison might be to feel-good throwback sports movies such as The Rookie, Miracle, Remember The Titans, Invincible, and yes, maybe even The Blind Side. Of course, the big worry going into something that wears its heart this proudly on its sleeve is that it will come off too syrupy or more closely resembling a Hallmark movie of the week than a legitimate entry in the sports film genre. I can't claim this completely avoids that, but it's smart and enjoyable enough to make us fondly remember when these types of pictures were released regularly and the public actually went out of their way to see them. Lately, it appears they're having a bit of of a resurgence, as this, along with the slightly more cerebral Draft Day, deserves mention alongside the better ones. It's also well anchored by an actor few would expect to see in a Disney project, marking a highly anticipated big screen transition with his first leading role.

Big shot Los Angeles based sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) has recently fallen on tough times, having gone out on his own with partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) to form their own fledgling agency. A dearth of clients and a failure to sign star football player Popo Vanuatu (Rey Maualuga) have left them bleeding money and in search of a game-changing idea. That idea comes to J.B. one night when flipping channels between cricket and Britain's Got Talent. Identifying an untapped market for baseball in India, J.B. comes up with the plan of holding a talent competition there called "Million Dollar Arm," in which contestants are scored on the speed and accuracy of their pitches, with the two winners receiving prize money and a trip to the U.S. to be trained as major league prospects.

But when eventual winners Rinku Singh (Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Slumdog Millionaire's Madhur Mittal) are flown to America to train with USC pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), J. B. realizes he has a near impossible task ahead of him in both preparing them for the big leagues and helping them adjust to their new surroundings. With his business continuing to tank, he skirts responsibility on the latter, leaving his chatty tenant Brenda (Lake Bell) as their only moral support. With the deadline to have them ready fast approaching, J.B. may have to start realigning his personal and professional priorities, for both his sake and that of these kids.

Having limited familiarity with the true story from which Tom McCarthy's script is based, it's hard to say just how far it veers from the facts, but there was never really a moment where I was shaking my head with incredulity at the unfolding events. The movie wisely doesn't try to pretend these young guys are superstars in the making who happen to be "discovered" via the competition. They can basically throw a couple of wild pitches at a little over 80 miles per hour and that's it. They're pretty terrible and actually remain so throughout the film, seemingly struggling to grasp basic mechanics even as they put in as much effort as can reasonably be asked of them. This is a relief since it's apparent early on that this will achieve its PG Disney movie status with tone and presentation rather than concocting an unrealistic fantasy out of a true story.

Everything is sanitized, but not insultingly so, deserving credit for not ignoring the fact that these two kids are being taken from poverty and will experience extreme culture shock upon their arrival. Some of these moments are played for laughs (not knowing how an elevator works) while others (a party gone bad) are treated a little more seriously, with director Craig Gillespie skillfully alternating between the two. The meat of the story is not only Rinku and Dinesh learning to come into their own and succeed in an unfamiliar world, but J.B. morally evolving enough to actually think about some other than himself and his company's bottom line. These are obvious messages, but well delivered nonetheless. And for those wondering, J.B's extreme narcissism, womanizing and somewhat similar profession do invite modern day Don Draper comparisons. There's just no way around it, which isn't necessarily such a bad thing for the film.

Hamm has always seemed like a movie star despite only appearing primarily on TV, and that charismatic  quality is only magnified by the very essence of the character he plays on Mad Men. With that series winding down, the notion that he'd be making the jump was already a foregone conclusion so we may as well just prepare ourselves for the inevitability that none of the material he's given moving forward will contain the depth and complexity we've been spoiled with over the past 8 years. We get one of the better scenarios here, with leading role that plays to his strengths as a performer, while giving moviegoers who haven't seen the show a good inkling of why he's a big deal. Hamm can probaly do this in his sleep, but it's a credit to him that he doesn't and finds ways to constantly keep us interested in his character's rather obvious arc.

One actor who actually does give a performance in his sleep is Alan Arkin,who plays a grumpy, aging major league scout constantly dozing off during try-outs. Considering how often he's been sleeping through this grumpy old man role lately it was nice to see him just go ahead and literally make it official. But his presence only belies the fact that this cast is deceptively stacked with talent, as both Sharma and Patel are extremely likable in the face of mostly unfounded criticism about this being another Hollywood story of a white guy coming to the rescue. They mostly prevent that hijacking each time they're on screen. While Lake Bell's Brenda is blatantly being set up as the quirky, free-spirited love interest for Hamm's character, it's hard coming up with another actress who would have been as enjoyable a fit. She makes it something and isn't underutilized, despite the standard girlfriend role being more than a few levels lower than she deserves. Amit Rohan steals some scenes as the kids' interpreter, working as comic relief that's more amusing than irritating, at least when taken in small doses.

Interestingly enough, ESPN's polarizing Bill Simmons is listed as a producer on the project and as much as it looked from its trailer like the kind of movie he would mock on his podcast, it isn't. And he does know sports films, so his involvement, no matter how limited, could have only been a plus from where I sit. Despite sharing a setting, an actor and even a composer (A.R. Rahman) with Slumdog Millionaire, it didn't really remind me of that as much as it did of the story behind the making of it, with poverty-stricken kids being uprooted from their home country and being thrown into the fast-paced lifestyle of America without preparation. It's still mostly mainstream fluff,  but it's good fluff that gets little things right and doesn't insult our intelligence. Disney has this uplifting sports movie formula down pat, but it's a rare case where predictability can be somewhat comforting.

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