Running through my mind as I type is next week's trailer for Disney's “Million Dollar Arm.” I use next week's trailer to account for the probable praise from critics – it's easy to visualize words like “triumphant” or “uplifting” materializing on screen alongside a four-star review from Rolling Stone's Peter Travers.
This imaginary trailer roll plays through my imagination because “Million Dollar Arm” is the right kind of pabulum to evoke those sentiments. It's a well-packaged story of hope and dreams and escaping one's circumstances that even comes with a bow in the form of Jon Hamm's handsome mug. But “Million Dollar Arm” is a problematic package, the kind that trades an interesting story of risk and daring for the redemption tale of a white man in a suit.
Leading off with one of those “based on true events” disclaimers, “Million Dollar Arm” stars Hamm as down on his luck sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who left a large-scale agency to build his own group alongside partner Ash Vasudevan (the reliably funny Aasif Mandvi). Things haven't gone well for the two, but Hamm, influenced by beer and late-night channel surfing, stumbles upon an idea to create a talent competition to find baseball players in India. The idea becomes the Million Dollar Arm competition, and Hamm is given one year to prepare two Indian athletes for a tryout in front of Major League scouts.
Hamm then spends weeks cruising across India alongside grumpy scout Ray Poitevint (portrayed by the perpetually grouchy Alan Arkin) and tagalong Amit Rohan (Pitobash) searching for a something akin to natural talent. They do have some success with top-two finishers Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), who are taken to America to train with USC coach Tom House (Bill Paxton).
What follows is a series of shenanigans rooted in cultural clashes involving the flustered Hamm and his three new housemates – Sharma, Mittal and de facto translator Pitobash. Hamm has to prepare the duo for that vital scouting session, somehow find a balance between life and work, and woo comely doctor cum bungalow renter Brenda (Lake Bell) before the credits start.
There's very little to complain about when it comes to “Million Dollar Arm's” filmmaking. It's an aesthetically pleasing film albeit predictable sports film — in other words, you’ve already seen “Million Dollar Arm” if you've watched just about any sports film from the last 15 years.
One thing the film has going for it though the presence of Bell as the token suffering wife/girlfriend. A wonderful comedic actress who has spent far too long stealing scenes, Bell imbibes the film with her blend of sweet and strange while providing sharpness to what is often a thankless role. Her presence provides a huge lift to an otherwise sluggish back nine.
I could praise Bell for just about ever (or you could go watch a few episodes of “Childrens Hospital), but “Million Dollar Arm” offers nothing else of note besides her performance and Maandvi's humorous exasperation. It's a tired film marked by Hamm's lackadaisical performance in a dull role, and the filmmakers' unwillingness to venture outside the genre's boundaries and try something interesting exacerbates the issue.
Something interesting in this case would entail telling the story through the eyes of Rinku and Dinesh, who are indeed taking a huge risk in leaving their home for a scintilla of a chance of making the Major Leagues. “Million Dollar Arm” should be their movie, but the filmmakers instead reduce them to plot devices that lead to Hamm's transformation from self-centered, model-dating businessman to a somewhat less self-centered businessman who finds true love in Bell's average appearance.
A better film would keep Hamm's evolution in the background and focus on the emotional growth Rinku and Dinesh undergo as they navigate through their new environment and learn a wicked hard sport from scratch. But the attention goes to Hamm’s uninteresting Bernstein because the man has a complexion Disney believes is more comfortable for audiences.
There is a segment of people who will bandy about accolades mentioned at the start, but the lovely package presented by Disney is empty of any true feeling or excitement. It’s a bland gift weighed down by uninspired direction and a slavish devotion to a tired trope.
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