Sports movies are almost always about something else, and “Million Dollar Arm” has so many collateral themes bubbling under its feel-good surface that it threatens to get lost on its way to its feel-good finale. Fortunately, it never gets sidetracked for too long.
Jon Hamm is “JB” Bernstein, an LA sports agent whose agency hasn’t signed a major client in years, and the bills are mounting. His daunting beard stubble is symbolic of hard times, and perhaps not surprisingly JB seems to have purchased a razor by the third act. Noting the increasingly international popularity of baseball, he gets the idea into his head to hold a high-profile competition in India to convert cricket bowlers into baseball pitchers. Hamm has a fairly significant challenge on his hands - how to get us to care about this fast-talking huckster who’s started to believe his own sales pitch. That he pulls it off is one of the main reasons this movie works. Feel-good movies are completely useless unless they actually manage to make you feel good.
The temptation to make “Bollyball” puns aside, baseball is completely peripheral to a feel-good story about personal redemption and building family in unlikely places. After all, “The Blind Side” wasn’t primarily about football anymore than “Chariots of Fire” was primarily about track and field.
Pleasantly predictable, the screenplay by Thomas McCarthy (“Win Win”) allows itself some detours along the way, which gives the second act in particular a leisurely, meandering pace. But this is a surprisingly smart script, both in its perceptions of the business of big money sports and human relationships. Obviously, JB’s discoveries getting Major League tryouts is less the point of the story than his reclamation of character and the odd bedfellows thrown together by circumstance becoming a surrogate family unit. At some point, JB begins to realize how painfully out of place his young recruits feel in Los Angeles, and his concern for them as human beings begins to interfere with his usual priority: the deal.
“Fright Night” helmer Craig Gillespie’s direction is straightforward, assured and to the point. His depiction of India, loud and chaotic with endless traffic jams but unflappable locals, is to a large degree right out of other recent movies, including “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” He does have the sense to present much of the Indian dialogue in Hindi, which gives a touch of verisimilitude often lacking in western-produced movies set in India.
A superb featured cast breathes a lot of life into an array of supporting characters more interesting and better-drawn than average these days. Suraj Sharma (“Life of Pi”) and Madhur Mittal (“Slumdog Millionaire”) are likeable as JB’s only two prospects who can throw with anything close to the speed and precision required by Major League baseball teams. Aasif Mandvi (“Spider-Man 2,” “The Internship”) , an increasingly familiar face to movie audiences, is properly long-suffering as JB’s married-with-kids business partner, with an understandably more realistic perspective. Lake Bell (“What Happens in Vegas,” “It’s Complicated”) brings a believable edge to Brenda, a med student and JB’s tenant, who might be the answer to his serial philandering. Utility player Bill Paxton makes the most out of his USC pitching coach role, which promises, but never quite rises to the level of a Mr. Miyagi character. Clubhouse veteran Alan Arkin, a deservedly feared scene-stealer, plays yet another variation of his trademark run of colorful curmudgeons.
Gyula Pados’ often lush cinematography, with a saturated color palette, makes full use of the evocative Indian locations.
“Million Dollar Arm” opens Friday, May 16th, at theaters across the Capital District, including: The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, The Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 and The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX.