“What [Million Dollar Arm] fails to drum up is interesting drama concocted on a scale that isn’t excessively sentimental or wholly predictable.”
Million Dollar Arm is successful in bringing awareness to an organization/program that I’m sure not many people outside of the baseball community are aware of, but what it fails to drum up is interesting drama concocted on a scale that isn’t excessively sentimental or wholly predictable. It concerns agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and his loyal business partner Ash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi), who are desperate for a baseball client and are having tough luck seeing as many of the international locations are “tapped out” of talent. They look towards India, a place that, given its size, has surprisingly went unnoticed, and host a program called Million Dollar Arm, where they try and find somebody who can pitch a good fastball and perhaps work out in the Major Leagues.
After watching countless amounts of people throw a ball and often fail to hit something, they settle on Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma), both bright young men who can pitch at up to ninety miles an hour. Bernstein and Ash eject them from the crowded streets of India to the opportunistic but business-heavy land of the United States where they need to be shopped around to see if they can be accommodated on other teams. However, culture shock, difficultly to adapt, and lack of fluency in the English language all pose problems for Patel and Singh, who are under the immense pressure of trying to fulfill what they were “expensively” brought her to do.
When it comes down to showing the difficulty to adapt, the struggles of understanding the American customs, and desperately trying to blend in rather than stick out, Million Dollar Arm is successful because it’s honest in its depictions. Yet, the film is painted in broad strokes, with very sentimental music, several scenes that want to emphasize emotion, and characters that still feel underdeveloped despite being in our company for two hours. Another problem is Hamm’s Bernstein, who is almost irredeemably unlikable as an agent who is understandably stressed but also annoyingly dictative and unappreciative. Even when he shares a meet-cute with his goofy but kind-spirited neighbor Brenda Paauwe (Lake Bell, who, mark my words, is just a performance away from being a household name), we still see his ungratefulness and, overall, cocky attitude shine through.
With our lead being so unlikable, our only hopes are the supporting characters – like Mandvi, Mittal, Sharma, Bell, Alan Arkin as a grumpy scouter (not surprisingly) and Pitobash, who plays Amit, the translator for Patel and Singh – who, while amusing and reliable for some good laughs, still don’t give us the heart of the characters we truly need. Admittedly, it’s not their fault – it’s the writing by Thomas McCarthy, who did so well at penning the screenplays for Win-Win and Up, which fails to narrow emotions and personalities down and prefers to either sugarcoat, shortchange, over-emphasize, or simplify in cases when the going gets tough.
For a Disney production, this is a bit expected, but even some of their older films that took heavy topics and made them extractable in a PG/PG-13 manner were incredibly successful. Consider Remember the Titans; that film blew me away with how honest and raw its scenes of racism and intolerance were. Had McCarthy saw that just because that familiar Disney logo is stamped before the film and on its poster doesn’t mean things need to be undercut, maybe we would’ve gotten a more successful, braver picture.
There are undeniable perks to the film, though; the performances work, the cinematography showing the uniqueness of India bleeds through every chance it gets, and there is definitely a feeling of triumph in certain parts of the picture, particularly the end, which should come as no surprise. But this is a painting of broad-strokes that wishes it could be minimalist with finer details.
Review by Lead Film Critic, Steve Pulaski