Million Dollar Arm.
A longtime sports agent with a solid reputation, J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) has hit a bit of a rough patch. Check that, an EPIC rough patch. The firm he started with a friend and fellow agent has lost almost all of its clients, most of them to retirement, others for various other reasons. The money is running out quickly and the threat of completely losing his business is becoming more and more likely. He's got to come up with something unique and by pure, dumb luck, J.B. might be onto something. Watching cricket one night, the agent begins to question if he could turn a cricket player from India with no baseball experience into a major league baseball pitcher. It sounds crazy, but maybe just perfectly crazy enough to work. He finds a sponsor who gives him an impressive budget and just a year with which to make the transformation. Traveling to India with limited time, can J.B. pull it off?
Over a two or three-month span last year, I saw the trailer for 'Million' in front of every single movie I saw. EVERY movie. Inevitably, whoever I was with would usually say 'Hey, that movie looks like you.' I took it as a compliment. Sports? Yes, I approve. Baseball? Yep, my favorite sport. Underdog story based on a true story? Yes and Yes, count me in. I enjoyed this movie after a somewhat slow start. Is it anything particularly new or groundbreaking? That would be a big N-O. Still, if you like sports movies, you'll get a kick out of this one.
From director Craig Gillespie, 'Million' is in fact based on a true story, the real-life Bernstein developing his reality contest dubbed 'Million Dollar Arm.' If I have any recommendation, it's this; don't read into the story that inspired the movie. Go in with a clean slate and enjoy the screenplay as it develops. I don't want to go into too much detail, but there is a cookie-cutter feel to the underdog sports movie. It covers a lot of ground and feels a little forced at times but never goes too far overboard. It's the type of story you wouldn't believe if you didn't know it was based in reality. From California to an extended trip to India and then back to sunny California and Arizona, 'Million' is a solid, good, old-fashioned sports flick. Nothing less. Nothing more.
Now as it heads into its final season, I'll admit I've never seen an episode of AMC's Mad Men. Therefore, I don't have a huge background with Mr. Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm. I thought he was very good in The Town but that's about the extent of my knowledge. How about here as agent J.B. Bernstein? It's a good part, not a great part, the character limited by a script that sticks to the cliches when the chips are down. Hamm's Bernstein's is a single, smooth, charming ladies man who finds his single life thrown upside down when his business starts to struggle. We try to humanize him through normal, attractive, perfect fit for him even though he can't see it renter of his backyard bungalow, Brenda (Lake Bell in adorable, every girl mode). This possible love interest teaches him to feel, to be nice to people, to not always look out for himself. Yeah, it's that type of subplot. So while it isn't always Hamm's fault, it does become an issue.
So six paragraphs in, you might think this is going to be a negative review (It sure reads like one). I liked this one a lot, but not because of the Bernstein character who I found generally unlikable. If more focus would have been placed on the Indian cricket players, I think the movie becomes that much stronger. We meet Rinku (Suraj Sharma, of Life of Pi) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), two young Indian men with no real baseball experience who are athletically inclined enough they can throw a baseball semi-accurately around 85 mph. Transplanted to America because of that skill, it is the definition of a fish out of water story. With some help from a baseball-loving translator, Amit (Pitobash), who travels with them, they try to adjust, try to learn English and baseball and a new culture, not exactly an easy thing to pull off. In these moments, the movie is at its strongest.
A movie through the boys' eyes would have been fascinating. Instead, we get a movie about the boys through the eyes of J.B.. It is a formula that works, but the story could have been stronger with some tweaks here and there. I really liked Bill Paxton as Tom House, the USC pitching coach trying to introduce the boys to all the nuances of American baseball, and also liked Aasif Mandvi as Aash, J.B.'s friend and fellow agent. Alan Arkin isn't around for long other than to be a crotchety, curmudgeonly old man as Ray, an experienced baseball scout who's past his prime but still has the eye for that special talent. Also look for Darshan Jariwala as Vivek, J.B.'s office manager of sorts who introduces him to all the ways of doing business in Indian fashion.
'Million' does have some surprises up its sleeve in the second half, and things definitely pick up for the better as a potential tryout with MLB scouts approaches. Yeah, there are too many moments that are for the Disney-crowd, family and all that sugary sweet stuff. Still, it is a tried and true formula that when handled correctly....man, it just works. If you like sports movies, you'll like this one. Remember to stick through the credits as we see the real J.B., Rinku and Dinesh in some great pictures. I like Sharma and Mittal a lot, the two actors able to humanize their parts without resorting too much to any sports cliches. Nothing flashy but a good movie just the same.
Million Dollar Arm (2014): ***/****