With Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Thomas McCarthy. Rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content. 124 minutes.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM is a disposable film opening as a sacrificial lamb against “Godzilla” with some vague hopes it might prove to be clever counterprogramming. Unfortunately, it is such an utterly formulaic film that it only works if you can ignore that: a.) you see everything that’s coming, and b.) the film’s cultural agenda leaves a bad taste.
Inspired by a true story, the movie is proof (if it indeed has stuck closely to the facts) that God writes lousy theater. It’s the old story of a middle-aged white guy–in this case sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm)–who needs something to get his life and career moving again. Once a big-deal agent, his clients have all retired and he can’t even pay the rent for the offices he set up when he struck out on his own. Then he has an idea: he’ll coach the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. No, wait, that was Disney’s “Cool Runnings” (1993). No, he’ll become a middle-aged Major League pitcher. Oh, that was Disney’s “The Rookie” (2002). Maybe he could coach a youth hockey team. Wait, that was Disney’s “The Mighty Ducks” (1992).
No, this middle-aged guy decides to go to India to discover young cricket players who can be taught to pitch baseballs instead. He’s a modern “ugly American” lumbering around India, but because this is a Disney movie, he’s well-meaning and no one takes offense. With the help of some Indian sidekicks (this is his story, after all; just look at the poster) and the usually reliable Alan Arkin sleepwalking through the part of a baseball scout, he comes back to California with two prospects and an interpreter.
The movie then takes us through hijinks (e.g., after overindulging at a party the Indians throw up in Bernstein’s car) and a low point where the two boys may have blown their big chance, before setting us up for the “true” happy ending. You’ll to have go online to learn what happen to two players after the closing credits, which is a somewhat different impression than the film gives, but if you’re not bothered by the facts, it’s all feel-good. The boys make it, Bernstein has his success, and he even has a romantic interest in a young doctor (Lake Bell) renting a small house from him.
Yet there’s also the ugly veneer of imperialism driving the film, not because it is deliberately disrespectful to its Indian characters, but because it treats them as little more than props. Amit (Pitobash) is the 5’4” “interpreter” who loves baseball and talks his way into a job when he says he’ll work for free. Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) barely speak and we learn little about them except they come from small villages and they don’t know much about the larger world. We like them the way we like R2-D2 and C-3P0, as lovable minor characters who allow our heroes to learn valuable lessons. In this case, J.B. has to remember that baseball is a game and is meant to be fun, and not merely a business. As for the rest of India, it can be summed up in the chintzy souvenir J.B. buys for the doctor. As far as he’s concerned, India is a place where they can sell baseball caps and t-shirts. Even Aasif Mandvi, as J.B.’s partner, is little more than an excuse for vomiting baby jokes. All the Indian characters exist to help J.B. find himself.
“Million Dollar Arm” is an overlong movie that is supposed to make us feel good about achieving your dreams. Unfortunately, the more you think about it, the less good it makes you feel.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.