Million Dollar Arm adapts the true story of struggling sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who makes a Hail Mary pass (yes, I know I’m mixing sports here) to keep his fledgling agency open by going on a search through India to find cricket players who can also throw a baseball, thus opening up the country to Major League Baseball and in turn potentially attracting millions of new fans to the sport. I like it when movies show me something new, and I honestly knew nothing about the real-life Bernstein and his exploits until I watched this film, so the premise alone was interesting – until the movie gets bogged down in one formulaic turn of events after another.
The first half of the movie is the better one. Bernstein, who comes across as crabby and self-absorbed yet still charming thanks to the inescapable charisma of Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, loses a big football client and is facing the end of the firm he and partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) launched just two years prior. Flipping through channels one night, he keeps switching between Susan Boyle singing on Britain’s Got Talent and a cricket match – and inspiration hits.
Taking a semi-catatonic scout (Alan Arkin doing his usual shtick) with him, Bernstein heads to India with the backing of his sole investor on a three-month tour to find the “Million Dollar Arm,” as the national contest is called. After a slow start – his local organizer does not exactly get things moving smoothly at first – and the typical acclimations to the country’s customs, Bernstein heads off into the countryside. After a long search, he finally hits pay dirt and comes home with not one, but two contenders: Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittel) – neither of whom, ironically, play or have much interest in cricket.
While not particularly surprising, Bernstein’s trip through India is the most captivating and entertaining portion of the film, as we get to see both the country’s beauty and poverty and also a look at a number of different locales. The scenes where Bernstein must communicate with the young athletes’ families also feel natural, and there’s a moment or two of genuine poignancy as the two boys say goodbye to their families and the culture they’ve known their whole lives.
It’s when the gang gets back to Los Angeles that Million Dollar Arm starts to ossify into a ho-hum series of plot turns and contrived emotional epiphanies – not quite enough to derail what is essentially a harmless piece of entertainment, but enough to ultimately lessen its value. The two boys – along with countryman, interpreter and videographer Amit (Indian star Pitobash) – are of course befuddled and dazzled by life in the fast lane of Hollywood, agents, celebrities and parties, to the point of annoyance. Yes, Dinesh and Rinku barely speak English when they first get here and yes, this is unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before, but come on – the movie paints them as almost utterly ignorant. Setting off a hotel fire alarm lands them in the spare bedroom at Bernstein’s place, where he doesn’t take too kindly to having a houseful of charges to oversee.
Naturally, the pressure to perform gets to the lads as well, and a rushed, poorly planned audition for scouts from most of the MLB’s teams goes disastrously wrong. But a movie like this doesn’t exist without second chances, and not just for our two potential baseball stars: the model-dating, commitment-avoiding Bernstein finally learns about love from the woman who rents his guest bungalow (Lake Bell) – just as we knew he would from the first moment they interact in the film.
Look, you could do worse than pass two hours with Million Dollar Arm; it’s reasonably well-made (by Lars and the Real Girl and Fright Night director Craig Gillespie) and it’s bolstered by its cast considerably. Hamm is believably gruff yet capable of warmth, while Bell does her quirky-sexy thing quite well. Sharma and Mittel also acquit themselves with dignity except for a handful of moments when they are required to act like buffoons. I kind of wish we saw more of iconoclastic coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), who Bernstein hires to train the boys, and could have done with less of the irritating Ash – who is either complaining or dealing with his two screaming kids – and Arkin’s been-there-done-that Ray, but their screen time is limited anyway.
Ultimately, the movie lacks any real teeth. You know exactly what is going to happen almost every step of the way, and the story beats have played out before in a hundred other movies, sports dramas or otherwise. The story does have a certain comfort and appeal – and I’ll mention again that those opening scenes in India have at least some unique flavor – but the more predictable it gets, the more forgettable it becomes. Yet, I was still entertained by it, so Gillespie, Hamm and the rest do manage to keep the movie engaging. All right, I guess I’ll end with a baseball metaphor: Million Dollar Arm is far from a home run. Let’s call it a single — with the runner managing to steal second base as well.