Baseball fan or not, “Million Dollar Arm” is an unexpected home run. Directed by Craig Gillespie with screenplay by Thomas McCarthy, “Million Dollar Arm” is a feel-good movie to be sure, but sometimes feel-good movies can be more than good and “Million Dollar Arm” is that movie. And what better company to be producing a real-life fairy tale than the Disney Company?
Inspired by the true story of sports agent/marketer J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), “Million Dollar Arm” tells how his one night of TV channel flipping ignited a spark with the possibility of rescuing his business and launching a few careers. After failing to land some potentially big clients, Bernstein is close to losing his business. That particular evening he keeps going back and forth between “Britain’s Got Talent” and a cricket match in India. He wonders…what if he was to look for the next great baseball pitcher in India and do it as some sort of reality competition? With its huge population, this could be a big deal. He and his colleague, Aash Vasudevan (Aasif Mandvi), pitch (pardon the pun) the idea to investor, Chang (Tzi Ma). He agrees to back the project with the stipulation that the winner of the contest make it to tryouts within a year. And thus the reality show, Million Dollar Arm, was born. Bernstein heads to India, followed later by baseball scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin), to begin his search and gets way more than he expected in the bargain.
Part of what makes “Million Dollar Arm” so wonderful is the way in which it looks at life in India and life in America…through Bernstein’s eyes and through the eyes of the eventual contest winners. Bernstein is a type-A plus person, so adjusting to the pace of India and having to learn how things get done in the country is quite a challenge for him…something he doesn’t handle well at first. The film also does a fantastic job, without belittling, in showing just how small the contest winners’ villages are and how sheltered the two boys have been. When they go to their hometowns to say good-bye to their families they are treated like conquering heroes. Then it’s off to Los Angeles and some real culture shock. The boys are thrown into a variety of athletic and societal challenges. They speak little, if any, English. They’ve never been outside India and Bernstein and his “entourage” aside, know no one in this country. Their loneliness and slight fear is palpable. And the overall largess and richness of America is overwhelming. Couple all of that with the reality that they know next to nothing about their newly chosen career—they never followed baseball and, in fact, were track and field athletes—and it’s easy to understand how they feel. What happens to these two and how they face all of these obstacles is what helps make “Million Dollar Arm” so appealing. But “Million Dollar Arm” is not just a great story. It is also full of terrific acting.
Led by Jon Hamm, everyone seems perfectly cast. How Hamm managed to stay under the radar for so long… until “Mad Men”… is an enigma. The man can do drama and comedy and is over-the-top handsome. What was wrong with Hollywood? Brash, smart, egotistical, obnoxious—J.B. Bernstein seems to have all of these qualities and Hamm simply nails the role. But he also manages to make Bernstein likeable. Helping Hamm in his humanizing endeavor is Lake Bell as Bernstein’s tenant and possible romantic interest, Brenda. Prior to India, they’ve only had a landlord/tenant relationship, but it’s that relationship which bonds them via Skype while he’s in India, and continues once he’s back in Los Angeles. Bell is not your typical Hollywood beauty, but she projects intelligence and humor and that holds her in good stead against Hamm’s character. Aasif Mandvi is terrific as Bernstein’s business colleague. He offers just the right amount of sarcasm to his part and really works well with Hamm. Then there is Alan Arkin as Ray. I’m not sure when Arkin became the official curmudgeon of Hollywood, but it’s something he does perfectly. What’s so great about Arkin is that he never phones in his role. Yes, he’s played plenty curmudgeon-like characters as of late, but each characterization is distinctly different from the last. He’s completely believable as a pitching scout who knows what he’s seeing without ever opening his eyes. Pitobash is excellent as Amit, Bernstein’s newly-hired, eager-beaver assistant in India. Possibly the only person in India who not only understands, but loves baseball, Amit shows Bernstein how to navigate India and helps translate for him with the Indian players. Bill Paxton has a fine turn as Tom House, the UCLA baseball coach who’s skeptical about the project, but agrees to help. Finally there are the two athletes. Suraj Sharma as Rinku Singh, the contest winner, and Madhur Mittal as Dinesh Patel, the runner-up, are fantastic as the two pitchers. Rinku is more laid back and has the most unusual pitching stance ever seen in baseball. Dinesh seems to come from a humbler background and is more of a worrier. Both actors are fantastic in conveying all the emotions assorted with coming to a new environment with the weight of family obligations and expectations on their shoulders.
Much like Rinku and Dinesh, you don’t need to know a lot about baseball to love “Million Dollar Arm.” It’s Disney at its absolute best. And be sure to sit through the credits for the final ending of the story and a look at the real personalities.