3.5 stars. Rated PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang
Underdog sports stories are irresistible. Fish-out-of-water stories are irresistible.
You’d therefore think that a film combining both elements would be can’t-miss.
In fairness, Million Dollar Arm has a lot going for it, starting with a fact-based premise that is buoyed further by several thoroughly charming performances. Unfortunately, these virtues are offset by director Craig Gillespie’s protracted approach — his film is both too slow and, at slightly more than two hours, too long — and a casting decision that doesn’t work as everybody undoubtedly hoped.
Thomas McCarthy’s screenplay takes a gentle, light-comedy approach to real-world sports agent J.B. Bernstein’s gimmick-laden visit to India in 2007, when he staged a reality show-type competition in order to uncover untapped baseball talent. J.B. felt, not unreasonably, that in a nation obsessed with cricket, surely a few “bowlers” could be groomed into Major League pitchers.
As shaped by McCarthy, J.B. (Jon Hamm) and his partner and best friend Aash (Aasif Mandvi) are treading dire financial waters. The dream of fronting their own agency is about to go under for the third and final time, salvation resting entirely on a potential deal with an extravagantly fickle football star (Rey Maualuga).
Things don’t work out, leaving J.B. to clutch at the flimsiest of straws, after some late-night TV flipping between a cricket match and Susan Boyle’s stunning performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent (an event that took place in April 2009, but hey, who pays attention to such niggly little details?).
J.B. hatches an improbable scheme, manages to secure financial backing from a taciturn investor named Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma), and soon finds himself in India.
Gillespie is on firm ground during this sequence, evoking portraits of various Indian locales that are by turns exotic and amusing. J.B. liaises with a “fixer” (Darshan Jariwala) and quickly picks up a protégé of sorts: Amit (rising Indian film star Pitobash, in a thoroughly delightful American debut), an eager-beaver volunteer, gopher, translator, right-hand man and die-hard baseball fan.
They’re also joined by Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin), a cantankerous retired baseball scout who doesn’t need to watch for potential; he can hear the sound of a proper fastball. (Didn’t Clint Eastwood’s Gus Lobel rely on that skill, in 2012’s Trouble with the Curve? And does Arkin ever play anything but cantankerous?)
Mild sport is made of J.B.’s hapless disorientation in these foreign locales: reactions he shares via Skype sessions with Brenda (Lake Bell), the medical student/tenant occupying the secondary suite behind the lavish home purchased when his previous lifestyle could afford such largess. During these moments, J.B. almost becomes a human being, a distinction that will become increasingly important — and irritating — as the film proceeds.
The talent search itself is pitched at just the right tone, evoking similar montage sequences from films as varied as All That Jazz and The Commitments. We know when things get serious, though, because Gillespie and McCarthy soon focus on Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), two young men who come from the same small rural village.
Ironically, neither thinks much of cricket; they just happen to be physically adept. When the dust has settled from the flamboyant circus orchestrated for this competition’s final round, Rinku and Dinesh find themselves on a plane bound for Los Angeles.
And, just as J.B. was drolly out of his element in India, Rinku and Dinesh haven’t the slightest idea what to make of Southern California. Everything is a wide-eyed, jaw-dropping wonder to these country boys: automatic elevators, water fountains and pizza, not to mention the very notion of a gorgeous young woman — that would be Brenda — mincing about in body-hugging jogging and exercise clothing.
Amit, brought along to assist with the culture shock, isn’t much help; he’s more awe-struck than the boys are. Perhaps unwisely, J.B. also gives Amit a camcorder and tells him to archive Rinku and Dinesh’s every move, for use in a possible future documentary: an assignment Amit takes much too seriously.
Whereupon J.B., his eye on another financially lucrative prize, simply drops them off each day with pitching guru/life coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), expecting the subsequent miracle to take care of itself.
And that, sadly, is this film’s major problem.
Okay, yes; J.B. is supposed to be a jerk, at least initially. The obvious plot goal is the transition: when J.B. stops being such a shallow, deal-obsessed cad, and — motivated by a genuine sense of responsibility to these young men, something he promised to their families, back in India — becomes a compassionate person who thinks beyond his own desires.
Goodness knows he gets plenty of encouragement, some of it rather bluntly stated, to stop being such an contemptible douchebag: from Brenda, from House, and even from Aash. On top of which, only a thorough creep would treat these three Indian visitors with such disrespect.
But that’s the problem. J.B.’s behavior goes from awful to worse, and Hamm is simply too good at being bad. He’s inherently loathsome, his smug, smarmy bearing overshadowing just about every attempt to be graceful, even during J.B.’s humbler moments. I don’t know whether to blame thespic limitations, or the impact of too many years as Mad Men’s despicable Don Draper, but — as this film’s Brenda would say — the patient is terminal, and should be taken off life-support.
Our unease over J.B.’s callous insensitivity, particularly in a film that’s otherwise graced with a benevolent and softly humorous tone, builds to a climax during an ill-advised temper tantrum: an unforgivable act that sabotages the film. Doesn’t matter what happens next; the obligatory happy-dappy finale feels false, because we no longer give a damn about J.B. He’s simply an ass, and he doesn’t deserve any sort of redemption.
That’s a shame, since everybody else is so well cast, and delivers such engaging performances. Sure, we’ve seen Arkin do his grumpy old man shtick many times before, but he remains no less delightful. Mandvi is an amusingly harried family man, the sort of boon companion J.B. hardly deserves; Allyn Rachel makes the most of her small role as Theresa, their Gal Friday.
Paxton is nicely understated as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of coaches, a performance he modulates to perfection, stopping just short of caricature.
Bell is marvelous as the feisty, perceptive and intelligent Brenda; indeed, Bell is a true joy in a tidily written role that makes this woman smart and utterly immune to J.B.’s lesser qualities (which he, of course, believes are virtues). These days, such a female character is a revelation, and Bell makes the most of the opportunity.
But the film belongs to Sharma, Mittal and Pitobash, all of whom are both endearing and quite persuasively cast. Sharma will be recognized as the young protagonist in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi; that was this young actor’s film debut, and his sophomore outing here is just as accomplished. Much can be read in Rinku’s hopeful gaze.
Mittal has a bit more work behind him, notably as Dev Patel’s older brother, in Slumdog Millionaire. Here, he makes Dinesh a classic tragic figure: a haunted young man barely able to endure the weight of family expectation, his often haunted gaze just this side of panic, should he let people down. The notion that such a fine young man would worry about disappointing a thorough heel like J.B. is almost more than we can stand.
Pitobash is a hoot and a half. He’s a nimble physical actor, getting considerable mileage from stance and gesture; watch for his grand moment, when Amit is called upon to give Rinku and Dinesh a pep talk.
Hamm may be this film’s star, but he’s completely overshadowed by these three; needless to say, that upsets the story’s balance. Gillespie errs further with his tin-eared use of music, most particularly the aggressively unpleasant numbers that utterly destroy most of the sequences in India. I note the entire score comes from celebrated Indian composer A. R. Rahman, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his contributions to Slumdog Millionaire. I wish he had employed more of that score’s effervescent charm here.
Just before the final credits, we get some captivating footage of the actual Singh and Patel, as they’re triumphantly signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates: a feel-good moment with which Gillespie wisely concludes his film. Wisely, because the moment didn’t last; Patel had a very short career before being released in December 2010, while the somewhat more successful Singh — who became the first Indian to pitch in a professional U.S. baseball game, in July 2009 — missed the entire 2013 season due to injuries, his future career now in doubt.
Not exactly the stuff of happy endings, just as I suspect that this little film — its frequent charms notwithstanding — will get stomped into oblivion by Godzilla.