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.
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.
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.
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