So how is it that Disney's latest uplifting sports drama, Million Dollar Arm, which is the true story of Major League Baseball's first Indian-born players, somehow is REALLY about how a rich, white sports agent saved them from an unfulfilled life? The stories of Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) are of the underdog variety in every sense of the word, capable of warming the coldest of hearts and making you feel a little bit better about the bloated sport of baseball, all while providing an ethnic twist on a formula Disney has perfected over generations. But rather than taking the opportunity to go in a somewhat different direction, we're treated to the same old slow-pitch fluff that can be seen coming from a mile away.
Ironic that Mad Men star Jon Hamm leads the ensemble as struggling sports agent J.B. Bernstein, because somebody at Disney must have pitched the Hell out of this movie to get him to sign on. Bernstein gambled and left his cushy gig with an established firm to start his own, and now it's not looking like such a smart move. With all of his big money clients gone and their one major prospect bailing, Bernstein takes another huge risk. A moment of late night enlightenment involving a cricket match and Susan Boyle convinces him that the best way to turn things around is holding a reality TV competition in Mumbai. Gather India's best cricket bowlers and somehow turn them into Major League baseball pitchers, and in the process tap into that lucrative South Asian market. Problems solved. It's a ridiculous plan nobody thinks he can pull off, but Bernstein is desperate to maintain his lifestyle of fast cars and faster women. Speaking of women, he's renting out a room to a sexy med student (Lake Bell) who is destined to be a love interest. No two ways about it. It's formulaic claptrap but enjoyable and relatively inoffensive claptrap thanks to Hamm, Bell, and co-star Aasiv Mandvi who give the story some comedic punch early on. Plus, Hamm plays a great unaware douchebag. The only thing he does better is silent torment, and that comes later.
Once in India the film simply hits all of the stereotypes like this were batting practice. Bernstein can't stand the heat, can't endure the traffic, and can't eat the food. The one baseball scout he can get to make the trip is a surly old curmudgeon, naturally played by Alan Arkin, who thinks the whole thing is a disaster. That is until he starts hearing some real juice. That's right, hearing it. He doesn't even open his eyes unless he hears a pitch go over 80mph, and they come from strong-armed lads Rinku and Dinesh. Still untrained in how to pitch like a real baseball player (one uses a weird crane technique like The Karate Kid); Bernstein flies them back to Los Angeles to work with a skeptical pitching guru (Bill Paxton).
Screenwriter Tom McCarthy (Win Win, The Station Agent) vacillates from bland inoffensiveness to ethnic awkwardness. Take for instance Bernstein's cartoonishly eager assistant, Amit, played by Bollywood actor Pitobash Tripathy. Apparently he's failed to realize this isn't a Bollywood movie because the level of overacting on his part, while charming at times, is mostly a distraction. Once back home there's little effort to go beyond the fish-out-of-water standard. Rinku and Dinesh eat too much pizza, struggle to learn baseball, marvel at Bernstein's massive home and gawk at his neighbor. We get a few brief moments where the pressure seems to get to them, and in these quiet asides we see that Sharma, who was so good in Ang Lee's Life of Pi, is the real deal as an actor. Performances aren't the problem here. Even Bell makes the most out of a stock role that is way beneath her at this point, and Arkin chews up the grass as we'd expect him to. But it's Hamm who has to carry most of the burden and he does seem to be the many sides of Don Draper most of the time. Bernstein is a manly guy whose masculinity is measured by his success, and when that starts to crumble so does he. Hamm wears the uncertainty and anger Bernstein carries well, and while the film as a whole isn't much he gives a game effort.
The problem is that the story is framed to follow Bernstein's quest for success, not Rinku and Dinesh's journey to the big leagues. There's very little actual baseball seen here, yet even less of the two boys acclimating to a place of total excess. The fish-out-of-water aspect is unfortunately played up for laughs (which are few) rather than insight, and basically the whole thing feels very safe and sanitized. Craig Gillespie's direction is bright, sunny, and indistinct, while McCarthy's script lacks his usual nuance. One of McCarthy's greatest traits, seen in literally every one of his films, is the ability to show how strangers can find a common bond and become a family. He tries to do that here but never quite pulls it off. Million Dollar Arm fits in the tradition of other crowd-pleasing, inspirational sports dramas, and for that reason it will surely have most audiences cheering. For that reason the film is more of a base hit than a total strike out.