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Movie review: 'Million Dollar Arm'

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Million Dollar Arm

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I’m not sure exactly how or when it happened, but sports movies aren’t really about the players anymore. They’re not about the coaches either, or anyone directly involved in playing the game. Rather, they’re about the managers, the recruiters, the agents—the behind-the-scenes people who care more about winning for money than winning to win. From the 2011 Oscar nominee “Moneyball” to the recent “Draft Day”, today’s business-minded culture has taken over the inspirational sports movie genre that may be clichéd, but that we moviegoers can’t help but love.

Enter “Million Dollar Arm”, the latest in this series of sports films from Disney and director Craig Gillespie. Based on a true story, the movie stars Jon Hamm as JB Bernstein, a sports agent searching for the next big idea to save his struggling firm. While flipping channels one night, JB comes across a cricket game from India, and starts to wonder how fast the players can pitch—and if it’s fast enough for Major League Baseball. So JB goes to India and sets up a multi-city contest he calls Million Dollar Arm, looking for talented cricket players who, if they’re good enough, will win thousands of dollars and the chance to fly to Los Angeles and train for the Major League tryouts.

After surpassing a series of obstacles, JB, fellow agent Aash (Aasif Mandvi), and retired scout Ray (Alan Arkin), find two promising boys: Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), neither of whom, as it turns out, even like cricket, and both of who have a lot of work to do to learn how to play American baseball in order to make a tryout in JB’s timeline of one year. But after getting to America, Rinku and Dinesh don’t feel so much like they’re living the dream, as they miss their families, struggle in training in an unfamiliar culture, and JB is too busy to pay much attention to them. Tensions mount when, after an elevator incident in the boys’ hotel, bachelor JB has to let them, as well as their translator/aspiring baseball coach Amit (Pitobash) stay in his house.

This movie is primarily about JB, who initially cares only about making money until the boys, and his charming tenant Brenda (Lake Bell) gradually make him reconsider his single life. There is a lot of focus on JB and his business deals, and there aren’t any actual baseball games played in the movie. Still, the film does a decent job of establishing Rinku and Dinesh’s backstories and continuing to follow them thoughout, so the progress and unlikely success of their training provides the inspirational subplot this kind of film really needs. It’s a little clichéd, but still unique in many regards; a lot of the first part of the film is spent in India, while the second half focuses on JB and his relationship with the boys. So while it is initially difficult to root for JB—he’s a jerk who only cares about himself and making lucrative business deals—it becomes easier to soften up to him by the end.

Hamm, who despite some small film roles has seen much of his success and fame come from the TV show “Mad Men”, finally as a breakout part on the big screen that he can sink his teeth into. Actually, JB isn’t much of a stretch from Don Draper, but that doesn’t mean Hamm isn’t enjoyable to watch. Bell and Arkin, as well as Bill Paxton, round out the solid supporting cast, while Mittal, Sharma, and Pitobash, who play the Indian boys, impressively pull off both comedy and the more dramatic scenes.

“Million Dollar Arm” is an enjoyable, feel good movie, and it’s hard not to be impressed with what JB accomplished as photos and videos of the characters’ real-life counterparts play over the end credits. Still, it’s hard not to wonder at the direction this genre is heading, and whether it is appropriate to root for the businessmen making money off the players, rather than the players winning games.

Runtime: 124 minutes. Rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content.

Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:

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