By NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
Hollywood has long used baseball as a source for inspirational sports films. “Million Dollar Arm” includes many of the obligatory tropes of the genre. Inspired by a true story, this vehicle is distinguished by its injection of a cross-cultural overview.
J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is a high-powered sports agent. He has left a Los Angeles-based megafirm to set up his own company. Before departing, J.B. had represented such superstars as Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. His Porsche and deluxe bachelor pad are vestiges of his prior success. J.B.’s polished manner obfuscates the fact that he is fundamentally a selfish, arrogant jerk.
J.B. is struggling to keep his faltering boutique operation afloat. One night, he is flipping channels between Susan Boyle’s celebrated audition on “Britain’s Got Talent” and some televised cricket matches. J.B. has an epiphany. Wouldn’t the skill set of bowling in cricket be transferred to pitching in baseball? Wouldn’t the billion plus population of the Indian subcontinent provide incredible marketing potential?
J.B. hatches an ambitious scheme to ferret out Indian boys who can hurl a baseball at high velocity. He sets up a series of highly publicized try outs throughout the country. J.B. enlists the help of Ray (Alan Arkin), a senescent, narcoleptic baseball scout and Amit (Pitobash), an enthusiastic assistant and translator. The latter is a hardcore baseball devotee, who is too small to be a player.
After a series of setbacks, J.B.’s crew eventually discovers Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma, following up on his star turn in “Life of Pi”) and Dinsesh Patel (Madhur Mitaal, the older brother in “Slumdog Millionaire”). The two athletes can both make a fastball hum at speeds over 80 mph.
J.B. returns to the United States with the pair of prospects. He puts these adolescents under the tutelage of Tom House (Bill Paxton), an erstwhile Atlanta Brave hurler turned U.S.C. coach. Can he teach the boys to gain control over their wildly erratic pitches? Otherwise, no major league franchise will sign them to a lucrative contract.
In the backdrop is J.B.’s womanizing with a series of sharp-looking models. He expresses a decided disinterest in Brenda (Lake Bell), the tenant in his guest house. She is an attractive, intelligent medical resident with an engaging personality. According to J.B., Brenda just isn’t in the league of the hotties that he is bedding. This subplot is organically integrated into the film, rather than gratuitously tacked on.
The casting here is spot-on. John Hamm captures the essence of a soulless opportunist on a mission. Lake Bell adds verve, spunk, and warmth to the film. Genuinely concerned about the two homesick lads, she proves an endearing counterpoint to Hamm’s heartless character. The diminutive Bollywood actor, Pitobash, lends his infectious energy to the film. Up and comers, Suraj Sharma and Maher Metal, both exude a requisite sense of earnestness. No doubt, Alan Arkin could do his crotchety old guy shtick in his sleep. Despite limited screen time, Lata Kula as Rinku’s mother and Yashwant Joshi as Dinesh’s father, are touching in tertiary roles.
The film places the quintessentially American sport of baseball into an international context. This is best epitomized by a scene of J.B. standing in front of the iconic Taj Mahal. Shots of the congested streets of Mumbai teeming with humanity, honking cars, and cattle telegraph a sense of life in a post-modernist city in a developing country. This constitutes a stark contrast with the beautiful Indian countryside and classical Indian dancers depicted elsewhere in the film. When the impoverished, provincial boys reach the U.S., they struggle with intense culture shock.
The film boasts laudable production values. Hungarian cinematographer, Gyula Pados (“Fateless”), uses an interesting amalgam of film and digital stock to advantage. Oscar-winning Indian composer, A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”), provides another stirring score.
This film emerges as a genuinely entertaining, upbeat tale. Benefitting from its cross-cultural perspective, “Million Dollar Arm” rises significantly above most films of the genre.
“Million Dollar Arm”
*** PG (for mild language and some suggestive content) 123 minutes. English with some subtitled Hindi dialogue.
Nathan Lerner welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.