Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) is J.B. Bernstein, a fast-talking sports agent who quits a big-money L.A. firm to start his own agency. A year after the fact, and he’s still trying to land his first major client. With bills piling up and clients defecting to snazzier agencies, J.B. pulls a brilliant idea out of his think-box. He’ll go to India and set up a fast-pitch competition for cricket players. The top prospects will come to America and get a tryout with a Major League Baseball team. India has no history of playing baseball, but it’s got millions of untapped fans. The first person to sign a big-time Indian baseballer could open up a whole new market in the Far East.
J.B. talks a millionaire investor into bankrolling the scheme, which he dresses up like a sports-themed “American Idol.” Dragging an over-the-hill baseball scout (Alan Arkin) with him, J.B. combs through villages and cities looking for his man with the million dollar arm. He finds two distinct possibilities in Dinesh (Madhur Mittal from Slumdog Millionaire) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi). Now all he’s got to do is drag them back to America and get them trained up proper—all before the money runs out in six months.
Unlike typical sports movies, Million Dollar Arm doesn’t spend all that much time on the game itself. (No actual games of baseball are played here.) And unlike recent films Moneyball and Draft Day, this isn’t some heavy-duty “insider” look at the industry either. This one’s much more about the personalities involved. Hamm is a seriously versatile actor (check out his wonderfully goofy work on “30 Rock” for confirmation). Unfortunately he’s been mostly typecast as the dour, self-centered businessman for his role in “Mad Men.” He doesn’t wander very far from home here, but his role as the selfish hustler J.B. Bernstein is peppered with some subtle work.
For Bernstein this whole India trip is little more than a publicity stunt to revive his flagging career. We get a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy as he is bused around the crowded nation recruiting players for a game they don’t even understand. Once he meets his two would-be players, however, the dynamic shifts. Rinku is a confident young student dreaming of a bigger, better world outside his impoverished village. Dinesh is a humble truck driver just trying to help out his elderly father. Neither knows baseball, or even cares that much about cricket. But winning the “Million Dollar Arm” challenge (and its promised prize money) is a big deal to them. And not just to them, but to their families, to their hometowns and to the entire country of India as well. This is a fact that escapes the grasp of our slick-talking protagonist, who just wants to get home to Los Angeles so he can pay off the mortgage on his too-big home.
Back in the states, J.B. drags in an old friend (Bill Paxton) to whip the boys into shape for their Major League tryout. This allows him to ignore them and continue pursuing more famous clients. Rapidly dwindling resources soon force him to put Dinesh, Rinku and their happy-go-lucky translator Amit (Pitobash from 3 Idiots) up at his swanky L.A. pad. There, he gets a closer look at the people he’s recruited and slowly starts to realize the pressure he’s put on these naive young men.
Million Dollar Arm even throws in some light romance in the form of a down-to-earth doctor-in-training named Brenda (Lake Bell from “Boston Legal”) who rents out J.B.’s guest cottage. She isn’t quite J.B.’s “type” and the two spend most of the movie as intellectually equal confidants—which is a nice change of pace. She acts as J.B.’s conscience, gently (and occasionally not so) pointing out how he’s exploiting poor Dinesh and Rinku.
Ultimately, there is an uplifting sports-based message to be had in Million Dollar Arm—but it’s less about the value of tenacity and hard work and more about responsibility and friendship. J.B.’s third act redemption and the boys’ eventual success are completely predictable—but they manage to feel well-earned and still carry a surprisingly emotional impact. Be sure and stick around during the closing credits. The now-requisite photos of the actual people behind this story scrolling by would seem to prove this story sticks pretty closely to real life.
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