In the latest inspirational sports movie from Disney, a somewhat closed-minded sports agent (Jon Hamm) travels to India in search of a golden goose in the form of a couple Indian athletes (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma) he hopes to convert into baseball players. The movie has received mixed reviews, many of which criticize the movie for its glorification of a white savior archetype. This is always a distressing direction for a film, and while I agree that there are aspects of this in Million Dollar Arm, the picture’s big problem is something else entirely.
The movie follows J. B. Bernstein (Hamm, who is supposed to be Jewish, I guess. Yeah, right!) as tough financial times force him to look for new sports prospects outside of the US. He and his partner, Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi), create The Million Dollar Arm, a reality show competition designed to find Indian cricket bowlers and bring them to America for a shot at the major leagues. It is through this competition that J. B. meets Dinesh Patel (Mittal) and Rinku Singh (Sharma). J. B. brings these boys back to Los Angeles to train with USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). Over time the boys (and sexy neighbor-doctor Lake Bell) soften J. B.’s cold heart, and he becomes the positive influence they need on their journey.
The movie is based on true events, most of which occurred circa 2008 (which makes Hamm’s Bernstein one of the earliest adopters of the recent plaid button-down craze that is sweeping Los Angeles and the world). Not to spoil too much (he says right before spoiling the entire film), but Patel and Singh were ultimately signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. If at this point you are scratching your head, trying to figure out why you’ve never heard of any Indian pitchers in the MLB, it is because that is the dirty secret that Disney wants to keep you from discovering. Neither man ever found success in the business of baseball. Singh is still hovering around the minors, though he has missed two consecutive seasons due to injury, and Patel washed out after a couple of years, ultimately returning to India and his old life.
So while the idea of Jon Hamm saving these brown boys and giving them a dream is kind of upsetting, what’s even more off-putting is the fact that in real life it hasn’t really worked out. I’m not arguing that The Million Dollar Arm reality show did not change the lives of Singh or Patel. It undoubtedly did, and for the better – but the refusal by the filmmakers (director Craig Gillespie and writer Thomas McCarthy, both of whom are responsible for some legitimately good movies) to even acknowledge what happened after the ink dried on the contracts is a shame. There is certainly something to be mined from the reality of disappointment and acceptance of that.
Perhaps it is not fair of me to judge a film by what it doesn’t include. I long ago came to the realization of Hollywood (and especially Disney) has no qualms about altering the truth of a story to make it a better piece of entertainment. So how does Million Dollar Arm stack up as entertainment? Well, it’s kind of boring. It probably won’t end up on anyone’s list of favorite sports movies, mainly because it doesn’t really feel like one. The movie is way more interested in J. B.’s business side of things.
This is especially disappointing because Mittal and Sharma (and Pitobash as their translator, Amit) are the beating heart of the cast. They convey wonderment, anxiety, joy very well. The film works best in the moments where they are allowed to have fun. I wish they would have been more of the focus of the movie.
This is hard for me to say because I really do like Jon Hamm. He’s a great actor, a funny man, and incredibly handsome, but he’s having a tough go of it with movie roles. He commits so greatly to J. B.’s abrasive qualities at the start of the film that it is hard to ever warm up to this man we are supposed to be concerned about. It does not help that all of the other actors have been given roles that allow them to be immensely likable, particularly Bell as The Perfect Woman, Paxton as The Perfect Coach, and Alan Arkin as The Perfect Curmudgeon.
Million Dollar Arm is what it is: a feel-good movie designed to give everyone an aura of warmth as they exit the theater (though the LA weather is taking care of that already, am I right?). Everyone pulls their weight onscreen, even if those behind the camera dropped the ball a little. Million Dollar Arm will probably be forgotten in a few weeks. Maybe you’ll come across it in your local library in September. Go ahead, borrow it. If you have the time. Don’t cancel any plans.