Looking for a chance to shout “Only in America”? Only in America — or an American movie — could the story of the first two Indian players to be signed to a Major League Baseball team get spun as an L.A. sports agent’s journey toward realizing the importance of family and not only dating models.
In Million Dollar Arm’s second half, when it collapses like the ’78 Red Sox, Jon Hamm’s JB Bernstein has plucked two promising athletes from their villages on the subcontinent and then borderline imprisoned them in his austere California manse. Just months before, these young men had never held a baseball. They need to be told, on their first day of training, why fielders wear gloves. Neither speaks English, both are achingly homesick, and they’re drilling each day with college-level American players for an upcoming MLB tryout. But the movie sidelines all of this real-life drama to put Hamm through the paces of a plot so old its grandkids are AARP-age by now: The Businessman Who Stops Putting Business First But Is Rewarded in the End with a Great Success in Business Anyway.
Here’s how off the script’s emphasis is. Like all studio pictures, just before the big finish there are several scenes of despair; our heroes have come so close to their goal, but now it looks like they can’t possibly make it, until one of the characters does something great, like give a speech or drive to the airport really fast. (This is only a spoiler if you have never seen the last 20 minutes of a movie.) In this case, the Indian prospects — Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, played by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal — feel defeated, as it turns out going from newbie to pro in 10 months is really hard. But don’t worry about them! Screenwriter Tom McCarthy rings in the climax with a speech so preposterous even Jon Hamm can’t sell it. Its gist: JB’s sorry that he forgot that baseball is supposed to be fun, which of course stirs up just the belly-fire these boys need. Imagine the opposite: You’ve been spirited from America to Bombay, drilled for months at cricket, and when things got tough, your big buck-up lecture is about what this baffling game’s supposed to mean to kids.
Meanwhile, the prospects have devoted their time to cooking up a potluck and stringing Christmas lights in the backyard in order to set up a movie-magic date night for JB and his med-student tenant, played by Lake Bell. If you didn’t know Million Dollar Arm came from Disney, that might tip you off — these guys may as well be Cinderella’s dress-sewing mice.
Also, before that, for comedy, they puke in his Porsche.
That said, much of Million Dollar Arm is pretty good for a movie committed to the wrong character’s story. (It’s like if The Pride of the Yankees were about a pushy guy Lou Gehrig crashed with once.) The much stronger first half covers JB’s tour of India with his Million Dollar Arm pitching contest, which is part dream-making reality show and part harvesting scheme. He sees this cricket-obsessed nation as an unexploited resource: Surely some of its bowlers and hitters have MLB-level “juice.” This plays as a bustling travelogue, a splendidly shot comedy that tickles at a self-involved American’s frustrations at the differences between here and there. JB faces mad Mumbai traffic, bribe-oiled local bureaucracy, and mild intestinal distress, but he also quickly takes to the place and its people, both of which are presented with respect and wonder. Outside the contest montages, director Craig Gillespie lets scenes unfold, lets shots communicate more than just one thing, lets our eyes make discoveries: Is that a goat on a scooter? Is that the Taj Mahal behind the pitcher’s mound? Has Hamm really pit-sweated through his shirts, or is that just ace wardrobe design? (Hamm, our best-looking grumpy dad-type, proves sturdily appealing in a prickly role.)
Occasionally, the film leaves JB’s quest to check in with the players. They have a few tender moments with family, none of whom suffer much stereotyping, but we only get to see their most earnest, declarative moments — the movie endorses their values but has no time for specifics. Instead, it cuts to JB’s Skype flirtation with Lake Bell’s character, who is at first dismissed by JB for not being model enough for him. Aasif Mandvi (assured and funny as JB’s business partner) actually has to plead that she’s “cute,” which is the film’s biggest laugh. She’s Lake Bell! And, unencumbered by her unspeakable beauty, she laces her go-nowhere role with winning, offhand comedy.
Hamm’s Indian adventures demonstrate that there are still rich stories to be told about (reasonably) normal people transplanted to lands they consider strange. If the filmmakers had been more daring with perspectives and narrative structure, and afforded their Indian characters the screentime and agency JB enjoys on his adventure, Million Dollar Arm might have distinguished itself. Instead, it devolves into one of those family flicks whose only real drama comes from outside itself. For the last hour, rather than worry that these guys might not make it, I found myself wondering how deep in the filmmakers could get before their story fully departed this world for the land of sports-movie magic. This one makes it to about the seventh inning.