Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Million Dollar Arm

MILLION DOLLAR ARM (Craig Gillespie, 2014)

After three years since striking out on their own Los Angeles-based sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and his business partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) are struggling mightily to stay in the game. Although they’re wooing a professional football player to sign on with Seven Figures Management, he seems likely to commit to their competition. For their last best chance to stay in business J.B. proposes to find the hardest and most accurate throwing cricket bowlers in India in a televised contest called The Million Dollar Arm. The top two finishers will be brought to the United States to be converted into baseball pitchers. If all goes well, the prospects will be offered Major League Baseball contracts and put J.B. first in line to lock up talent in a huge country where no one else is looking.

J.B.’s time in India doesn’t go exactly as planned--the winning athletes throw the javelin and play field hockey rather than being experienced at cricket--but he leaves with lanky lefty Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and right-handed Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) ready to be molded and Amit (Pitobash), an eager, baseball-loving assistant who can translate between the Americans and Indians. Although J.B. wanted a one-year timeline, his investor demands six months for pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) to work wonders before a pro tryout.

MILLION DOLLAR ARM opens with J.B. practicing his pitch to a football player he hopes will become his client. Director Craig Gillespie’s film plays as though it’s also trying to persuade us to buy into the vision of a potential emerging market for American professional sports. Based on a true story, MILLION DOLLAR ARM feels like the next step in the public relations campaign for the agent and Major League Baseball. Hello India, we’d love to have you become fans of our product, and if you can supply a player or two to our teams, all the better.

The well-executed formula is Nutrasweet to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s SUGAR, a fictional drama which followed a Dominican Republic prospect and the culture clash he faces when coming to the United States to play in the minor leagues. MILLION DOLLAR ARM is more about the agent, which can leave something of a bitter aftertaste in treating these Indian athletes as exotic totems collected on the American’s path to personal betterment, but the film’s second half improves at conveying their struggles in adjusting to a new land and profession. It also helps that Hamm, although not in full-blown Don Draper mode, comes off as persuasive and indifferent to those he is relying on to maintain his financial position. J.B.’s sharper edges have been sanded down, but Gillespie and screenwriter Tom McCarthy don’t ignore them entirely.

Although MILLION DOLLAR ARM isn’t like the masala films India produces, it mixes a little bit of almost everything into a satisfying whole. As a sports drama it demonstrates knowledge of its subject. Rinku and Dinesh aren’t presented as surefire all-stars in the making. They may light up the radar guns, yet their feats are typical for anyone trying to make it in MLB. Light comedy keeps MILLION DOLLAR ARM from drooping under the weight of the seriousness and highly sentimentalized tone often bound to baseball movies. The romance with Brenda (Lake Bell), a medical intern renting J.B.’s bungalow, is very Hollywoodized yet retains a natural believability through the stars’ relaxed charisma. It might have been fun if a song could have been worked in too.

Grade: B-

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