It’s amazing how even a true story can look like a fairy tale when presented by the Disney organization.
Million Dollar Arm is based on the real-life tale of two young men from India who won a TV contest to pitch in Major League Baseball. It’s a fictional account but it takes all the elements of what really happened, mixes them together and comes up with what looks like the manifestation of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, except that it’s mostly true, and even better, as family entertainment, it mostly works.
In the style of the fictional Jerry Maquire, J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is a real-life sports agent who was doing great until he went solo. Now, with only one partner, a secretary, and an office space he is about to loose, J.B. is struggling to sign new clients. It’s while watching late night TV and jumping channels between Susan Boyle’s audition on Britain’s Got Talent and a British game of cricket – is his remote stuck permanently on Anglophile? – J.B. comes up with the idea of a reality TV game show where cricket bowlers from India could compete against each other to become the next great pitcher in America’s MLB. It’s a crazy idea, but like all crazy ideas presented in a film like this… it just might work.
J.B.’s all-American manner doesn’t quite get the idea of cricket. “It looks like an insane asylum opened up and the inmates invented a game,” he states, but it’s not cricket he’s interested in; it’s the ability of the bowlers to throw that ball, and off to India he goes.
J.B.’s first impression of India is one of chaos and of a population explosion. Streets are packed, roads always appear to be blocked, and taxi drivers like to make noise. “Everybody’s honking,” the cheerful Indian taxi driver explains. “I don’t know why. It doesn’t help.”
But what sounded like a crazy idea actually becomes an Indian TV success and one that everyone talks about. With two potential MLB pitchers from India now under his wing, J.B. returns to America with Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) ready to train them and hopefully have them signed to play in the MLB.
Once Rinku and Dinesh land in America the film takes on the warm humor of a fish-out-of-water tale, something that’s always fun to watch particularly when those new waters are the familiarity of our own home turf. It’s a safe approach because we always get the joke.
The two young men, who can hardly speak a word of English between them, take to their new home’s convenient ways. “I’ve fallen in love with pizza,” states Rinku as he scoffs down another slice. But when training on American soil for the first time they’re both a little dismayed by the rules of the game, a game of which they have no knowledge. When told to wear a pitcher’s glove during practice, they’re not quite sure why. “Maybe it’s to keep the hand warm,” suggests one to the other.
Those who follow MLB and know the names of Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh will know the film’s outcome, but knowing how it ends is not as important as the road it takes to get there. “Do you think you can have them ready in six months?” the sports agent asks trainer Tom House (Bill Paxton). “Based on what I’ve just seen,” the trainer responds, “Probably not.”
But, of course, you know they will be ready in one way or another because it’s that kind of film. Perhaps because you know going in that Million Dollar Arm is intended to be a feel-good family-friendly movie under the Disney banner there’s never a moment when you feel that all is genuinely lost for J.B., even though the conflicts in his life are set up to appear that way. There’s a familiar rhythm to the script – the ups and downs, the failures, the success – but whatever happens there’s never that nagging doubt that maybe it’ll all go wrong; Million Dollar Arm is not heading in that direction.
At just over two hours, the film feels longer than it should – perhaps a trim by fifteen minutes would have made it sharper – plus there’s a feeling that maybe the story might have been more interesting had it been told from the point of view of the two young men and not the agent, but what might have worked artistically is not always marketable. In the end, Million Dollar Arm is exactly the film you expect from the look of the poster – engaging, full of good natured humor, and nice performances from all, including a grumpy Alan Arkin and an appealing Lake Bell as J.B.’s helpful neighbor. It might be formulaic but it hits all the right notes at the right time; it’s the big screen equivalent of comfort food, and sometimes that’s satisfaction enough.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 124 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)