The outcome of the true-life tale “Million Dollar Arm” doesn’t really matter. In fact, audiences who like the feel-good family-friendly feature (which certainly offers plenty to like) will probably feel better if they don’t do some fact-checking after the final credits roll. Although Craig Gillespie’s film hews closely to the real-life story – the real-life Million Dollar Arm competition, as it were – that inspired his film, it doesn’t pay too much attention to what happened after the events that it chronicled, simply because not much really happened. This is a film about a journey, and while the destination – baseball’s major leagues – is continuously dangled in front of its protagonists, it’s getting there that counts. Oh, and also how fast you can throw a ball. That counts, too.
Jon Hamm stars in the film as sports agent J.B. Bernstein (a real dude!), who is struggling with keeping his own agency afloat, alongside slightly doofy and definitely harried partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi), after losing out on some seriously big fish. Thomas McCarthy’s script (and Hamm’s perpetual sad face for the first half of the film) tries damn hard to sell J.B.’s potential hardship to the audience, but it just doesn’t quite stick. He might have to sell his Porsche. He might have to move out of his mansion with the lucrative on-site rental property. His company (which appears to consist of exactly three people) might not get a fancy new office space. This is all so very sad, except it’s not, and the drama of the film is lacking when those are the only things at stake. Things ratchet up once something heftier is on the table – call it J.B.’s soul, or at least a vague sense of humanity – and the agent needs to decide what kind of man he wants to be.
What J.B. really needs is something different, both personally and professionally, and when he and Aash hit upon the idea to go looking for emerging talent (not Major League big boys that would rather be with bigger agencies), it sure seems like the ticket. Inspired by flipping between two channels – a cricket game and Susan Boyle’s life-changing debut on “Britain’s Got Talent” – J.B. conceives of a plan to combine the two. He’ll put on a reality show for unlikely talents who play cricket in order to find Indian baseball players. Sure. Let’s go to India.
Of course J.B. runs up against some cultural complications once on the ground in the foreign country. It’s loud and hot and the food makes him sick and he can’t get anything done and everyone totally sucks at baseball! Eventually, J.B. does find a pair of semi-talented pitchers – or else we just wouldn’t have a movie – thanks to a combination of dumb luck, a faithful Indian employee (Deepash Solanki), and a retired scout (Alan Arkin, who apparently doesn’t need any other direction beyond “be crotchety” for his work these days). The two youngsters, the spunky Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and the more reserved Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), are both eager to succeed at the reality show-styled Million Dollar Arm competition, thanks to its tantalizing prize (not really a million dollars) and the possibility of pitching in the major leagues (or, at least getting a tryout).
Swept off to Los Angeles with J.B. and his still-sorta-bad attitude, the guys attempt to re-acclimatize to a new life and learn baseball, which would be hard enough without a scowling surrogate dad leering over them. The central conflict of “Million Dollar Arm” isn’t really about if the guys can play baseball (eh, sorta), but if J.B. can grow a heart. It’s slow going on both accounts. Mercifully, Gillespie’s direction and McCarthy’s script don’t lavish the film with silly sports metaphors, and “Million Dollar Arm” steadily turns into a sweet, human story about relationships and what really matters in life. There’s just also some baseball on occasion.
Adding to J.B.’s emotional education is the introduction of his tenant, Brenda (Lake Bell), a doctor in training who adds some grounding kindness to the entire film. Bell’s role isn’t exactly demanding, but she gamely adds grace and charm to Brenda, and the actress is refreshing and just plain nice to watch on screen. Brenda and J.B.’s halting romance may seem a bit hard-to-swallow – she’s his tenant? and they sort of fall for each other while chatting on Skype? – but the pair exhibits enough chemistry to keep it ticking along. (Also, the real J.B. and the real Brenda are really married in real life, which is sweet.)
Still, while the film doesn’t rely too heavily on all sorts of sporty things, it still winds up to a big sporting event to maximize drama. As is so often the case with sports films, the “big game” (not really a big game, but you get the idea) takes place in an Arizona strip mall parking lot. Wait. What? Sports stories aren’t always glamorous, you guys. Fine, as is of often actually the case with sports films, the “big game” isn’t the most important thing to happen in the film – it’s the emotional ramifications of said game. Although those ramifications might not hit the strike zone firmly (sorry), “Million Dollar Arm” has enough punch to recommend itself for family movie nights for years to come.
SCORE: 6.9 / 10