Saturday, May 17, 2014

'Million Dollar Arm' is a Highly Entertaining, By-the-Numbers Sports Movie

Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm.
J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is a down-on-his-luck sports agent looking to land the one big client that will rescue his foundering business. Desperate for ideas, he hits upon the notion of traveling to India to develop potential star pitchers from the country's glut of cricket fanatics--and dearth of baseball players. It's the premise of Million Dollar Arm, the latest feel-good sports film from Disney in the spirit of Invincible, Miracle and Cool Runnings. Million Dollar Arm is a predictable, by-the-numbers inspirational story, but it's also a well-written and well-acted one.

In a made-for-TV event that attracts would-be athletes, young and old, from across India, J.B. finds Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), his two contest finalists who have strong arms but not a lick of baseball knowledge. Tasked by his all-business financial backer Chang (Tzi Ma), J.B. must bring the boys to the U.S., develop their talents, and get them signed to pro baseball contracts in less than a year. That Rinku and Dinesh achieve their dreams by the movie's end will come as no surprise. That J.B. will learn as much about life from his charges as they will about U.S. culture and sports won't either. But, that's not the point. Million Dollar Arm succeeds by reveling in all the sports movie tropes and cliches it rolls out and executes them to perfection. It's tightly directed by Craig Gillespie and benefits from a smartly written script by Tom McCarthy that respects both characters and cultures and doesn't talk down to the audience. It tells its story honestly and sincerely while deftly avoiding cheap laughs and sloppy sentiment.

(l. to r.) Madhur Mittal, Suraj Sharma, Jon Hamm and Pitobash
The cast is rock solid. Hamm charms as the slick sports agent who puts too much emphasis on closing the deal and not enough on living his life. Even when J.B. acts like a jerk, you still like the guy. Sharma and Mittal are quite good as the would-be pitchers, exuding playful awe at their new American surroundings and just the right level of determination when the odds are stacked against them. I particularly liked Indian actor Pitobash as J.B.'s eager beaver go-fer Amit who loves baseball and longs to be a coach. He provides just the right balance of comic relief and pathos as he begins living a dream every bit as much as Rinku and Dinesh are. Rounding out the cast are Aasif Mandvi as J.B.'s practical business partner, Lake Bell as J.B.'s whip-smart and equally practical tenant-cum-girlfriend, Alan Arkin as the narcoleptic baseball scout J.B. brings to India, and Bill Paxton as the unorthodox coach who takes on the challenge of training Rinku and Dinish. They are all surprisingly good in a movie that offers few surprises, other than it's much more entertaining and satisfying than you'd ever expect it to be.

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