It’s hard to the resist the charms of a film as decidedly feel-good as Million Dollar Arm, even if does hit every note and plot turn with brazen predictability. Based on the real-life efforts of American sports agent JB Bernstein to turn Indian cricket bowlers into Major League Baseball pitchers, this old-fashioned sports movie from Disney has all the makings of a typical underdog story, with a fish-out-of-water twist thrown in for laughs.
When JB (Jon Hamm) misses out on signing a major NFL player that he’d been courting for over a year, he realizes he may not be able to keep the agency that he started afloat. In a scene as subtle as a sledgehammer, while flipping channels between a cricket match and Susan Boyle’s now-famous Britain’s Got Talent audition, JB hits upon an idea that he hopes will save his career. He travels to India with a talent scout (Alan Arkin) to host a contest to find a “million dollar arm”. While there, he recruits Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), whom he’s convinced have the potential to be groomed into promising baseball players.
The clichés start piling up from the moment JB arrives in India: incessant honking on traffic-packed streets, scant respect for deadlines, and the eager-to-please desi who fawns over the white man. It’s all done to mine maximum comedy value, and sure some of this might have been offensive if director Craig Gillespie didn’t put them across with such verve. The scenario is reversed when Rinku and Dinesh come to America to train with USC coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), and it’s these bits that made me uncomfortable. The idea that these two 18-year-olds (from Lucknow, mind you!) were unfamiliar with automatic elevators and had never tasted pizza, come across as contrived and condescending.
Yet it’s the infectious appeal of the talented cast that keeps you invested in the film. Shor in the City’s Pitobash delivers many laughs as Amit, the guy who volunteers himself as an assistant to JB and doubles up as a translator for the boys. Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal bring a nice wide-eyed innocence to their parts, and Alan Arkin is terrific as the cranky old scout. Lake Bell plays Brenda, a young doctor who rents the guest-house behind JB’s home, and she invests the character with a naturalness that feels entirely authentic. It’s all held together by the immensely charming Jon Hamm, however, who’s hard not to like despite his character’s self-centered flaws.
The story itself progresses exactly as you expected it to, never deviating from the traditional rise-and-fall-and-rise formula of most sports films. India, and Indian culture even, is sportingly exploited for its ‘exotic value’, like that scene late in the film in which the boys convert JB’s patio into an Indian celebration, complete with Punjabi dinner and a date dressed in a shimmery Indian gown.
The stereotypes notwithstanding, Million Dollar Arm is solidly staged, and inhabited with richly-drawn characters. AR Rahman’s soundtrack fits in nicely with the narrative, making this a pleasing enough watch for the weekend. I’m going with three out of five. If you seek comfort in the familiar, this film won’t disappoint.