After the flop of Pudsey The Dog: The Movie and the lukewarm success of One Chance, Disney’s Million Dollar Arm – also based on a real-life TV talent show – doesn’t appear to be in the most dazzling company. But Million Dollar Arm isn’t part of that cheap and cheerful UK gang. It’s a glossy sports movie, a true blue American picture about learning life lessons and achieving the improbable.
Jon Hamm plays sports agent J.B. Bernstein, a playboy whose go-it-alone business is losing out to wealthy Goliath, Pro Corp, and in dire need of a big signing. After a night of channel flipping between Britain’s Got Talent and a cricket match, Bernstein has it: India’s his answer. And so 2008’s Indian baseball pitching talent TV show Million Dollar Arm was born.
With funding secured from a dollar-sign-eyed investor promised a vast untapped market, off Bernstein goes in search of pitching diamonds in the rough. Helped by an indifferent retired scout (Alan Arkin) and an English-speaking baseball enthusiast (Pitobash) he finds a couple of contenders, bags them up, and takes them back to his L.A. mansion for training.
Do they make it as pro-pitchers? If you followed the story at the time then you’ll already know. If you didn’t follow the story at the time, then chances are you already know too. Million Dollar Arm quickly gets on the rails of its classic underdog narrative and doesn’t deviate once there. This isn’t a film designed to surprise, but to uplift and reassure. Lessons are learned, lives are changed, and presumably, a shed load of merchandise was flogged along the way.
Craig Gillespie (Lars And The Real Girl, Fright Night) directs a likeable cast in a film that mostly avoids the premise’s potential for schmaltz and casual racism thanks to a decent script by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) and a winning performance from Jon Hamm. The lessons Bernstein learns from his adopted Indian family about priorities might be hokey, but they’re entirely in keeping with the genre.
Hamm is surrounded by a genial supporting cast. Lake Bell plays his likeable love interest. Life Of Pi’s Suraj Sharma is javelin-thrower-turned-baseball-pitcher Rinku, and Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal is homesick athlete Dinesh. Both young actors inject some pathos into their subtitled scenes, while Pitobash’s clownish Amit provides the comic relief. Alan Arkin, as ever, is great as crotchety Ray.
It’s a good-looking film, too. The $25 million budget shows in the Indian location shoots, which move between goats-on-lambrettas city-centre cliché to more quietly observed scenes of rural village life.
Despite the odd moment of discomfort, overall the cultural portrait is more sensitive than a movie about taking country mice to the big city might be. A patronising thread depicting Mumbai’s people as irrational, incompetent and corrupt gladly fizzles out early on, and is matched by a similarly unflattering portrait of the shallow excesses of life in L.A.
If you chose to, you might object to the film’s flag-waving for US cultural imperialism and financial exploitation of a developing country (street kids distribute the leaflets publicising Million Dollar Arm, Amit’s labour is snapped up when he offers it unpaid, and the Apple logo is rarely off the screen) but seeing as that’s Disney’s specialism, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
Ultimately, Hamm’s performance provides the swell of charm on which this film surfs (and considering he’s essentially playing Simon Cowell, that’s no mean feat). It’s a polished, efficiently told story that’s comfortingly free of surprises. If you watch the trailer, then you’ll know just what to expect and just what Million Dollar Arm proficiently delivers.
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