Million Dollar Arm

by Alex Stroup, staff writer

Unfortunately, you have to review the movie that was made and not the movie you wish they'd made. Million Dollar Arm is a completely standard and bland feel-good movie. Jon Hamm is sports agent J.B. Bernstein. For the last couple of years (the movie is set in 2008) J.B. has been trying to make a go of it with his own agency after having left the comfort and success of one of the behemoth agencies. He only has two people by his side, partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) and assistant Theresa (Allyn Rachel).

It's just them against the world... and it isn't going well. They haven't been able to sign a single client and when their last hope goes with that behemoth agency it looks like they'll need to go back with their tails tucked.

Until, that is, inspiration strikes when J.B. happens to be flipping back and forth between a cricket game and the Susan Boyle breakout episode of Britain's Got Talent. If he can't sign a big star, he'll develop his own stars by going to India and holding a talent competition among cricket players to find someone who can be turned into a major league baseball player.

Million Dollar Arm. © Disney.

It's win-win. He gets to be the first into a so far untapped market. The players get a chance at a lot of money. We get cinematography constrasting the aching beauty and poverty of India. Someone gets to pitch a movie saying "it's Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire."

J.B. heads off to india with a retired baseball scout (portrayed with more energy than most of the cast by Alan Arkin), runs the competition, and returns to America with two players and a translator. Now he needs to turn them into legitimate baseball players and maybe, just maybe, learn what kind of person he wants to be along the way. Oh... and love. Definitely he needs to learn that dating only models isn't as rewarding as a good loyal woman (Lake Bell will do, as Brenda, the tenant of J.B.'s guest house) willing to put him in his place.

There is absolutely nothing unique about the story here, either in content or presentation (which is disappointing from the director of Lars and the Real Girl). J.B. is a self-centered jerk. J.B. hurts other through his jerkishness. J.B. learns he is a jerk. J.B. learns he doesn't want to be a jerk. Jon Hamm is perfectly fine in the role but doesn't do anything to suggest he's finally going to explode from TV into big screen leading man. The scenes string together coherently and by the end you are hoping for a good outcome and will be happy when you get it.

Million Dollar Arm. © Disney.

But have you noticed? I've not really told you anything about the Indian cast. Because while they are prominently on screen throughout the movie, they are almost insignificant to its progression. This is where the struggle is to not review the movie they could have made.

Here's the true story (presumably; Brenda was transformed from former flight attendant/current airplanes salesperson into a medical student, so who knows what other artistic license was taken): An American sports agent has an idea for how professional baseball may be able to begin tapping into the largest unexploited talent and fan pool in the world: The billion-plus people in India. As a result, two young men from rural India are plucked out of their existence and dropped into Los Angeles, where they'll be given a chance at what is, even here in the United States but unthinkable from where they started, the rarified air of fame and fortune. Their lives are permanently and dramatically changed.

Which half of that paragraph sounds more interesting? It's an easy answer for me but almost every frame of the movie is focused on the inner life of J.B. Bernstein, and we barely learn any personal detail about our Indian stars. Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma, star of Life of Pi) is a good javelin thrower. Dinesh Patel (Madhur Pattel) was a promising athlete who had to quit school to help his father's delivery business. Amit (Pitobash) for some reason has come to love baseball but is too small and old now to try himself, so offers to work for free. Almost literally that is all we learn about these characters. To me, their experience is the most fascinating part of the story, and unfortunately, it is barely present.

Million Dollar Arm. © Disney.

Unfairly, perhaps, but this missed narrative detracts for me from the successful mediocrity of what was actually delivered. When the movie ends, instead of being happy about the title cards telling us what has happened to J.B. since 2008, I was left a bit grumpy at the lack of detail as to what happened to Dinesh and Rinku.

In the end, Million Dollar Arm is not the story of Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire but rather the story of Jerry Maguire deciding to make the movie Slumdog Millionaire while not even presenting the level of cultural introspection that Mr. Baseball offered in 1992. That's just not interesting enough for me. I guess I'll just have to wait for the "30 for 30" documentary on ESPN.

  • Million Dollar Arm is Walt Disney Pictures release.
  • Wide theatrical release on Friday, May 16
  • Directed by Craig Gillespie
  • Starring Jon Hamm, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Aasif Mandvi, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton
  • Running time: 124 minutes
  • Rated for mild language and some suggestive content
  • Alex's rating: 6 out of 10


  1. By olegc

    I really liked the movie - and yes I know it was a formulaic feel-good structured film. I guess for me I derived the struggle of the Indian cast from the few scenes they did show. I have many Indian friends and have spoken with them repeatedly about life at home so the scenes triggered some of that knowledge. I know not everyone can say that - but I filled in the blanks and was satisfied.

  2. By Alex S.

    Yeah, it was competent enough at what they decided to do with the movie. And i know the guy trying to get it sold and made into a movie is a guy whose job is self promotion. It was just a distraction to me that the movie was focused on the least interesting aspect of the events covered. I'd have preferred the Indian ballplayers be less prop and more people within the movie. But maybe I'm alone in that. At least they kept the humorous country rubes in the big city gags to a minimum.

    An example of just how prop-oriented they were:

    The movie is called Million Dollar Arm. The contest to find the ball players is called Million Dollar Arm. We are told that the best pitcher found in India will get $100,000 and a chance at $1,000,000. We are never told what is necessary to get that $1,000,000. Whether either of them did get that $1,000,000. And definitely not what the impact of an Indian from a poor rural village winning $1,000,000 would be on him, his family, or his community. Not even Rinku or Dinesh mention it. So even the central conceit of the movie takes a back seat to the stirring saga of a sports agent realizing it isn't all about him (by making a movie all about him).

    I also wonder what the non-baseball fan watching this movie will think happened to them after the end of the movie. For those who don't know:

    Neither of them ever advanced beyond single-A minor league baseball. One of them only lasted two seasons at that level while the other played through last year but never appeared in more than a few dozen games in a season.

    Absolutely nothing wrong with this level of achievement. But I suspect that the average non-baseball fan would leave thinking they both played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, so a far cry from that. And since that might undercut the feel good ending, apparently it wasn't even worth mentioning in one of the end cards.

  3. By olegc

    Oh I don't think you're alone in that thinking. I see enough movies where you can tell the suits got involved and said "do this to the story" which makes it like all the other structured films out there.

    some info I can add to the current state of the boys.

    Note that according to the LA Times Dinesh was released in 2010 and now MLB is training him to be a coach (through Tom House at USC) to go back to India and create a baseball academy; Rhiku actually had a chance to move up this season to the majors but injured his arm. So he is rehabing and hopes to get back at it. No news of Amit.

    Interesting to note that the actors who played the two characters said that even now Dinesh is similar in his personality and mannerisms as he was in the film, even though its been 7 or 8 years.

  4. By jms1969

    Saw the movie over the weekend and really liked it, and it also was very much enjoyed by my wife and baseball-loving 10 and 15 year old boys. I though the movie did a more than competent job of telling all sides of the story - while there was conscious decision to focus on the agent side of the story, I felt that the movie did a good job of presenting how the dramatic change to American life affected the young men, and the effect leaving their homeland had on them.

    While the "Jerry McGuire" comparison is an obvious one, I think another apt comparison for the movie may be "The BlindSide" which tells the story of a football player from an extremely difficult background here in the US, but clearly has Sandra Bullock's character as the main focus. There's nothing wrong with telling a story in this way, and I didn't think it was a negative in either movie.

    Regarding what happened after the movie, thanks for filling in the details...I also thought it was odd that there wasn't a lot of detail about what happened to the two players after the period covered by the movie. However, the fact that they did not wind up having stellar careers definitely explains the lack of detail. While "A" Ball is professional baseball, something only a tiny fraction of baseball players in the US ever reach, it certainly doesn't do anything to improve on the ending for most people who think of it as "just" the Minor Leagues. For these two players, winning the contest and what came after, as told by the movie, was the high point of their story (so far!), and putting in detail of the time afterward would have been anti-climactic.

  5. By jms1969

    Not quite sure if this spoiler or not, but I'll play it safe!


    Despite the fact I liked the movie, I also found it strange that it wasn't in the movie, and also can't be found anywhere online, what exactly the winner had to do to get the $1 Million instead of the $100,000. The nearest thing I found was an article from the time referring to a "bonus round". I'm assuming it was probably something very difficult, with requirements for a specific number of strikes thrown or a higher speed (possibly 100mph, which I believe is what Disney used in its marketing tie-in contest). Since the prize awarded is mentioned in the movie as $100,000 I'm assuming the two did not accomplish this, so it makes sense that a "feel good" movie would pretty much ignore this, but it's odd that information isn't out there somewhere to be found.

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