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The sports movie genre is heading in a very strange direction. While these films have classically been about the coaches and the players, the last few years have shown us an interesting shift, with films like Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day instead putting the spotlight on the men in suits who view sports more from a business perspective than an athletic one. This trend continues in Craig Gillespie’s based-on-a-true story baseball drama Million Dollar Arm, and also proves that now is the time that we need to start actually getting back to the game.
Based on a script by Thomas McCarthy, the film begins centered on J.B. Bernstien (Jon Hamm), a sports agent who is forced to do everything in his power just to keep his head afloat. When he finds himself completely out of ideas to save his career, he gets sudden and strange inspiration to travel to India and try and convert a pair of cricket pitchers into Major League Baseball stars. Despite being given only a year to find and develop his discoveries (and told by every baseball professional he meets that what he’s doing is basically impossible), J.B. makes his way around the South Asian nation and finds Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma), two players who had never picked up a baseball in their lives and actually showed playoff potential.
Presented with the idea of turning this true story into a Hollywood movie, the filmmakers behind Million Dollar Arm undoubtedly started the process by choosing what set of eyes the audience would see the tale unfold through, and to put it bluntly, they chose wrong. While Hamm puts on a fine performance and the character actually gets to experience some solid emotional moments, ultimately the audience isn’t really given a reason to cheer for his efforts outside of the fact that he’s the lead character. In addition to being portrayed as being a little too well off for a guy who is supposedly struggling with his career (you should see the guy’s house), he really lacks fortitude and constantly needs the people around him to bring him back from the brink. This isn’t necessarily a bad trait for a person to have, but it doesn’t work as the personality driving the plot.
Adding insult to injury, Million Dollar Arm not only keeps all of its Indian characters strictly on the supporting level, but is also somewhat demeaning towards them. Traveling to India, J.B. experiences a great deal of culture shock that’s played up for comic effect (such as his experiences with a whole new level of traffic on the roads and doing business with bribes), but it’s all cloaked in a “Please get me out of here” feeling that radiates off the lead.
Conversely, when J.B., Dinesh and Rinku make their way back to Los Angeles, the newcomers are in awe of everything they see -- from big television to pizza to elevators. The movie seems to go out of its way to make its foreign characters seem silly or stupid despite the fact that they are the ones who are meant to possess the film’s most important talent.
This would be at least somewhat excusable if some time was taken to legitimately flesh out Dinesh and Rinku’s characters beyond their freakish ability to pitch and their inexperience with American culture. But Million Dollar Arm doesn’t deliver in that area either. The future baseball players are given only a few scenes each for explanation as to where they come from, and only a couple more actually feature just the two of them talking with each other about the experience and hardships that come with being a stranger in a strange land playing a strange game. This is unfortunately rather symptomatic in all of the supporting characters – including J.B’s love interest/guest house-renter played by Lake Bell, his conveniently Indian co-worker played by Aasif Mandvi, and the rough-edged baseball scout played by Alan Arkin – but the problems stick out more with Dinesh and Rinku simply because it’s their story that the film should really be telling.
Million Dollar Arm has some genuinely funny moments and features some legitimately gorgeous cinematography capturing the various Indian landscapes, but can never outrun the fact that its basic approach to its subject matter is flawed. Watching a sports game, I’m not thinking about all of the executives and agents selling players as products, but instead acknowledging the skill and athleticism that few people in the world possess. It’s become clear that Hollywood is in desperate need of a reminder of this.