Jon Hamm, Supporting Cast Salvage "Million Dollar Arm"

As with past Disney-produced, heart-on-its-sleeve sports fare – “Miracle” (good), “Invincible” (not as good) – the mere existence of “Million Dollar Arm” is enough to draw the ire of cynics. The genre was founded on clichés, so it takes a certain willful naivety to completely immerse oneself in any given sports film. “Million Dollar Arm” isn’t an exception to the rule. In fact, it is the rule. Craig Gillespie’s film is almost antagonistically predictable and quietly smug about its own rags-to-riches story. Its overconfidence is endearing in small doses, matching up with the scrappiness of its protagonist, but it’s too stubbornly, proudly formulaic to rise above its sports pic brethren. Fortunately, many of the film’s feel-good-isms are genuine, punctuated by a smooth lead performance from Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” fame.

Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a struggling third-tier sports agent in need of a big-fish client in order to pay his bills. When he strikes out with a potential NFL star, he hatches an idea that strikes his partner, Ash (Aasif Mandvi), as crazy. Following the duo’s “it’s so crazy, it just might work!” moment – a line of dialogue that’s not actually in the screenplay, but might as well be – J.B. is off to India to find a cricket player he can convert into a Major League Baseball pitcher. It’s here that Alan Arkin turns up briefly with his usual grumpy old man routine, this time as a veteran scout with a penchant for spontaneous naps. Bill Paxton also features as the gruff head of USC baseball who reluctantly agrees to train J.B.’s potential clientele.

The portion of the picture shot on-location in India is visually astute, but the screenplay’s fish-out-of-water jokes are tired, as are its stereotypes of Indians as uncultured simpletons. Also problematic is that J.B.’s search – in the form of a nationwide contest – seemingly goes on forever, our lead wallowing in his own futility when his answer is, inevitably, just around the corner. Two answers, in fact. They come in the form of Rinku (Suraj Sharma, “Life Of Pi”) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, “Slumdog Millionaire”), two stud athletes with fastballs just fast enough to secure interest from professional baseball. The story eventually shifts back to Los Angeles, with J.B.’s neighbor, Brenda (Lake Bell) emerging as an agreeable force in the narrative – as a potential love interest for J.B. and as part of an unusual family unit with J.B.’s new houseguests.

It’s a third houseguest, Amit – an excitable baseball enthusiast who latches onto J.B. upon his arrival in India and doesn’t let go – that gives the film its biggest shot of life, stealing “Million Dollar Arm” away from everyone else. Hindi film actor Pitobash Tripathy imbues the character with a contagious, wide-eyed earnestness that at once charms and befuddles, while never succumbing to the aforementioned stereotyping. The character is written broadly, but through sheer charisma Pitobash muscles his way from punchline to fully realized character. He draws the majority of the pic’s laughs, playing wonderfully off Hamm’s debonair huckster.

As Rinku and Dinesh encounter and overcome various cultural and professional obstacles, it’s impossible to shake the “been there, done that” feeling inherent in these types of movies, but the cast is never short of magnetic. Hamm and Bell have real chemistry together and the supporting players – apart from Arkin’s perfunctory performance – uniformly keep pace with the leads. For all its weaknesses, Tom McCarthy’s pliable screenplay works well as a showcase for its actors and as a delivery method for some inarguably charming moments. Its hits effectively allow its misses to melt into the background, unnoticed.

The most militant of misanthropes will hate “Million Dollar Arm” because that’s what they do. Let them. They won’t be wrong in pointing out the film’s subtle (if unintentional) xenophobia, nor will they be exaggerating the extreme predictability of the narrative. Simply take solace in the fact that your heart hasn’t hardened to the point of not being able to enjoy a syrupy sports drama. Sure, “Million Dollar Arm” is the kind of Disney-fied true story that’s been so gussied up as to hardly resemble plausibility, let alone reality, but the occasional live-action Disney sports pic can be a part of a healthy moviegoing diet. In moderation, of course.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: May 16, 2014
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Aasif Mandvi, Pitobash, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin
MPAA Rating: PG (for mild language and some suggestive content)