Dutifully covering all the requisite inspirational sports movie/fish-out-of-water bases yet still managing to throw a few fresh curves into the mix, Disney’s Million Dollar Arm assuredly hits a home run.
As homers go, it may be of the inside-the-park variety — after all, the true story of sports agent JB Bernstein’s career-rehabilitating scheme to turn an Indian cricket player into the next great MLB pitching ace can’t help but feel like a Jerry Maguire/Slumdog Millionaire combo platter with a hefty side serving of The Blind Side — but it’s mighty satisfying nonetheless.
Credit a rock solid turn by lead Jon Hamm that doesn’t shy away from revealing a darker underbelly to his underdog character, as well as a keenly-observed script by Tom McCarthy and deft direction by Craig Gillespie for the rewarding changeup.
The result should have audiences cheering enthusiastically when Million Dollar Arm opens May 16 for what will likely be an extended home stretch.
Back in 2007, Bernstein, a driven agent who at one time represented Barry Bonds and Emmett Smith, staged a contest in India with the intention of finding the baseball equivalent of Yao Ming from among the country’s legions of cricket bowlers, with the winner receiving a $100,000 prize and a shot at a major league contract.
As portrayed by Hamm, Bernstein is clearly feeling the pressure of a career that hasn’t quite gone as planned since starting his own agency and that Million Dollar Arm reality TV competition is a last-ditch attempt to keep his business afloat.
Recruiting an irascible, retired baseball scout (Alan Arkin) with a penchant for napping, and an overeager gofer/translator (engaging Bollywood actor Pitobash), Bernstein proceeds to comb the rural Indian communities with initially unpromising results.
He eventually returns to Los Angeles with two contenders in tow — Rinku Singh (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal) a pair of 18-year-olds who know next to nothing about baseball and, as it turns out, not much more about cricket.
Trusted with attempting to turn the culture-shocked teens into plausible players is USC pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), who has less than a year to prepare the boys for the big leagues.
Providing a sympathetic, motherly ear for his house guests, meanwhile, is Bernstein’s smart/sexy/funny next-door tenant Brenda, winningly played by triple threat Lake Bell.
In the hands of Lars and the Real Girl filmmaker Gillespie and The Station Agent and Win Win writer-director McCarthy, it should come as no surprise that Million Dollar Arm is filled with richly-drawn characters and offbeat humor, but it also doesn’t avoid dealing with more uncomfortable issues — specifically the exploitative nature of Bernstein’s career gambit.
Coming off of the final season of Mad Men, Hamm makes a convincing case for big screen stardom here, with a confident, complex performance that makes you want to cheer him on despite those determinedly self-serving character flaws.
Meanwhile, Sharma and Mittal convey a genuine sense of alienation as the wide-eyed transplants for whom even elevators hold a sense of wonder, wanting to make their benefactor and their homeland proud even as they become increasingly wracked with self-doubt.
Rounding out those smartly-cast characters are The Daily’s Show’s Middle East correspondent Aasif Mandvi as Hamm’s pragmatic Indian-American business partner.
Production companies: Mayhem Pictures, Roth Films
Cast: Jon Hamm, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Alan Arkin, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Pitobash
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy
Executive producers: Palak Patel, Kevin Halloran, Bill Simmons, Connor Schell
Producers: Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray, Joe Roth,
Director of photography: Gyula Pados
Production designer: Barry Robison
Music: A. R. Rahman
Costume designer: Kirston Leigh Mann
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Rated PG, 125 minutes