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Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Premise: Based on a true story. A down-on-his-luck sports agent (Jon Hamm) attempts to save his flagging career by recruiting Indian cricket players to pitch in Major League Baseball.

What Works: Walt Disney Pictures has had success in producing family-oriented sports movies such as Invincible, Miracle, Remember the Titans, and Glory Road. A lot of these films follow a familiar format in which a new coach uses unorthodox methods to bring together an unlikely group of athletes and lead them to victory. That Pygmalion formula is repeated yet again in Million Dollar Arm but familiarity is part of its appeal. Like mass produced comfort food, part of the reason audiences turn out to a movie like this is its consistency; the movie’s primary allure is its predictability. That said, Million Dollar Arm tells its story pretty well and it’s distinguished from similar movies by its main characters. A lot of sports movies focus on a coach and his relationship with a whole team, who are usually a group of stereotypes, but Million Dollar Arm focuses on the sports agent, two players, and an Indian assistant. The limited cast helps this film considerably because it allows the audience to have empathy with each of them. Jon Hamm is very good in the lead role as the agent. As is obvious from the beginning, his character is on a trajectory from selfish businessman to sensitive nurturer but Hamm and the filmmakers don’t overplay the schmaltz of that transformation. Unlike the incredible (and frequently condescending) altruism of The Blind Side, Jon Hamm’s character begins Million Dollar Arm as a pretty terrible guy but that awfulness gives the movie some credibility and the filmmakers make it clear that he has something at stake in the success of these players. Also impressive are actors Pitobash, Suraj Sharma, and Madhur Mittal as the Indians who have come to the United States for a chance to play professional baseball. Pitobash in particular is very good, partly because he is given the most to work with. His character is nonathletic but a very enthusiastic baseball fan who translates and assists his fellow Indians and Pitobash gets a few scenes that are some of the best dramatic moments of the film. This is the respect in which Million Dollar Arm is most impressive. Stories like this can easily become exploitative as non-Western people are made to look silly or backward or exist solely as an engine for pseudo-spiritual enlightenment as in Eat Pray Love. That’s mostly avoided here, in part because the filmmakers respect the background of their characters and treat them as full-fledged people.

What Doesn’t: As well as the filmmakers regard their Indian characters, there is a sense that they’ve minimized the most interesting aspect of the story. Million Dollar Arm focuses on the plight of the rich white guy and the narrative is constructed around his point of view. Had the story been told primarily from the perspective of the Indian characters it might have been a more interesting film. Million Dollar Arm includes a romantic subplot between Jon Hamm and his subleaser played by Lake Bell. Both are fine actors but their relationship isn’t entirely believable and they have little romantic heat. Alan Arkin appears in what amounts to a glorified cameo as a cantankerous baseball scout and it’s a lazy performance, with Arkin rehashing the same grumpy old man routine he’s been doing since Little Miss Sunshine. Million Dollar Arm is also problematic in its relationship with Major League Baseball. In the same way that Draft Day was a two hour commercial for the NFL, Million Dollar Arm is basically a feature length promo for professional baseball. Professional sports is a billion dollar business and a touch more cynicism would give the movie a little more credibility.

Bottom Line: Million Dollar Arm is exactly what it advertises itself to be and so viewers who enjoyed Disney’s other sports films are going to like this one as well. It isn’t especially memorable and it’s very predictable but the filmmakers do execute the kind of wholesome, undemanding, and populist sports story that mainstream audiences often enjoy.

Episode: #492 (May 25, 2014)