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Million Dollar Arm
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by Jay Seaver

"Needs a little more spice and a lot more 'Sugar'."
3 stars

When the events that inspired "Million Dollar Arm" were playing out... Well, they mostly flew under the radar of all but the most maniacal baseball fans, but when they did finally start to capture the imagination, it was more for the fish-out-of-water story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel than how a sports agent took a big risk in setting it up. And while J.B. Bernstein certainly has an interesting story to tell, whether this movie is best served by making it the primary focus is a fair question.

J.B. (Jon Hamm) and his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) started their own sports agency a while back, but with new clients hard to come by, they are desperate to find new talent, coming up with the novel plan of running a televised contest in India to find young cricket bowlers who could become major league pitchers. With the help of local fixer Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), intern Amit (Pitobash), and former big-league scout Ray (Alan Arkin), J.B. eventually unearths Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), bringing them back to train with former big-league pitcher Tom House (Bill Paxton). Circumstances have the visitors staying with J.B. in his house, although his other tenant (Lake Bell) does better reaching them than he does.

Despite a release timed to the start of the MLB season, there actually isn't much baseball in Million Dollar Arm at all. That makes sense within the context of the story at first - it is focused on just finding raw talent - but as the film goes on, this seems to become a set of missed opportunities, and not just because I and others who might buy tickets like watching baseball. Sports is a natural way to tell a story about refining that raw talent and passion into something more focused (even if it's about a hustling agent becoming more of a family man), but you've go it to get into the game to draw those lines. Instead, the baseball in this movie is just throwing at a target, which makes one wonder how compelling a TV show the contest was, and a couple of supporting actor are underused: Alan Arkin cruises through as the cranky old scout while Bill Paxton improves every scene he's in as unconventional coach Tom House enough that it's a shame we don't get to see him actually teaching Rinku & Dinesh much at all.

While the action is in India, there's a scene in the movie where J.B., talking with Brenda back home, describes the place as a study in extremes, and while there are certainly plenty of scenes that show the crowds in the cities, isolation of the villages, and the side-by-side poverty and vibrancy, it's somewhat rare for the audience to actually feel it. J.B. and his team do what they set out to accomplish too well, and what could be an eye-opening experience for viewers that had seldom seen much of India becomes a series of minor challenges and casual glimpses of the Taj Mahal. On the flip side, while the audience does certainly get to see loneliness and homesickness on Rinku's and Dinesh's faces -Suraj Dharma and Madhur Mittal do pretty good work, with Pitobasdh making for good comic relief - the biggest scenes of them getting flustered and overwhelmed by their new environments are all off-screen.

This puts both the baseball and displacement stories in a position where they wind up supporting the story of J.B.'s growth as a person, and while that's not a bad thing to build a movie around, it's the one least likely to show the audience something new, especially the members of that audience who have already seen Jerry Maguire. It's a nice enough take on that material; Jon Hamm makes J.B. Bernstein a guy who at least seems to actually enjoy the career which consumes him while still showing some hollowness that can be filled in. Lake Bell pairs off well with him, putting enough life into the love interest that she at least seems like she could exist independent of the rest of the story. They're a likable pair from early on, and it is fun to see J.B. evolve to the point where he and Brenda fit well together.

Still, it seems like an awful lot of effort to go through if that is the ultimate goal. Writer Thomas McCarthy and director Craig Gillespie make an entertaining film out of the story - the low-key jokes are fine (even if they do go to someone throwing up once or twice more than necessary), the emotional beats are timely and earned, and the cast is mostly fun. But if you're going to spend so much of the movie saying that trying to sell baseball to India is risky, or that House's coaching methods are unorthodox, etc., why focus so much on the most conventional and predictable part of the story? Would doing a story that put the focus on the young men doing something completely new and strange to them be so risky at the box office?

I don't expect Disney to go all the way in the other direction and make something like Anna Boden's and Ryan Fleck's "Sugar" (the best baseball movie in recent years), but seeing ESPN's Bill Simmons in the credits as an executive producer has me hoping for a "30 for 30" on this story. "Million Dollar Arm" is told well enough, but whiffs on the chance to be major-league.

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originally posted: 06/05/14 13:35:21
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User Comments

5/24/14 Bert Very predictable, but a very good movie. 5 stars
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  16-May-2014 (PG)
  DVD: 07-Oct-2014


  DVD: 07-Oct-2014

Directed by
  Craig Gillespie

Written by
  Thomas McCarthy

  Jon Hamm
  Bar Paly
  Lake Bell
  Bill Paxton
  Aasif Mandvi
  Alan Arkin

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