Written by Tom McCarthy
Directed by Craig Gillespie
There’s a scene roughly halfway through Million Dollar Arm that speaks to the film’s inherently generic nature. In it, our ostensible hero, workaholic agent/pitchman Don Draper—er, J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is brought in to talk with USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) to talk about Bernstein’s two Indian prospects and the recent troubles and frustrations they’ve faced. House alludes to the fact that one of the boys lashed out at a USC player who called him a derogatory name, presumably a race-based one. Bernstein asks, “What’d they call him?” House says, “That doesn’t matter.” The issue is never again broached or even referenced by any of the characters (and none of the USC players are even given dialogue). That a Disney movie would shy away from even a mildly serious moment regarding racial stereotyping is, perhaps, not terribly surprising; even their race-based sports drama Remember the Titans treats the issue of white vs. black in a cursory fashion. That this specific movie, which deals so directly with the concept of a foreign culture being invited into one of the most American sports, would bring up race and then ignore it just as swiftly is baffling. Why does Million Dollar Arm even infer that the two Indian boys currently training in the States are dealing with personal racial injustices if it has no interest in exploring the topic?
Brief scenes like these, where a larger societal problem is brought to the forefront in a specific fashion before being dropped, are what make Million Dollar Arm nothing more than the most familiar of sports dramas. Here is a case where, if you have seen the trailers, you know exactly what you’re getting. Hamm, best known as the ad man Don Draper on Mad Men, plays a more family-friendly and modernized variation on the character as Bernstein, an agent who’s pulled a Jerry Maguire, having used to work for a big-name sports agency before leaving after apparently becoming disillusioned with his colleagues. (“Apparently,” because although that agency is mentioned a few times and we see one agent from the company, Bernstein never actually interacts with the place he left behind.) Bernstein and his fellow agent Ash (Aasif Mandvi) have only one shot left at keeping their tiny agency afloat: starting up a reality show in India to lure young cricket players to train for and get a shot at playing in Major League Baseball. Bernstein heads to Mumbai to set things up and start viewing prospects with an old and crotchety baseball scout, AKA Alan Arkin. (Arkin was almost entirely paid to sleep on camera, which is a pretty sweet gig.) Once he finds two young men, Dinesh and Rinku (Madhur Mittal and Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma, respectively), who fit the bill, Bernstein brings them back to LA and ends up serving as an initially unwilling father figure who eventually softens. To paraphrase Michael Lerner’s studio executive in Barton Fink, it’s a Disney sports movie. Whaddya need, a road map?
The problem, then, is that unlike many other generic-seeming sports movies, such as Disney’s Miracle, Million Dollar Arm never once attempts to do more than is expected. Any fan of Mad Men will enjoy Jon Hamm’s performance here, as will anyone who appreciates good acting; contrived though the film may be, as in a completely unnecessary subplot involving a star NFL linebacker who might sign with Bernstein, Hamm’s a predictably grounding force. He’s written as less baffled by Indian culture than bemused (or at least that’s how Hamm plays him, a pleasantly befuddled look on his face when he sees Rinku and Dinesh unable to grasp the point of delivery pizza).
Mandvi, Arkin, Paxton, and Lake Bell (as Bernstein’s love interest/girl next door) are all fine, but it’s hard to say that any of them can break free from the aggressively basic script from Tom McCarthy. (McCarthy’s prior work, even in his weakest directorial effort, Win Win, doesn’t exactly scream “aggressively basic,” so this is kind of a letdown.) And Sharma and Mittal do well enough, but their roles are somewhat underwritten; the script focuses more on Bernstein’s journey to becoming a better, more well-rounded person than on their struggle to adapt to the wildly unfamiliar and strange world of Los Angeles. Rinku and Dinesh’s fish-out-of-water journey isn’t terribly singular compared to the trope of a workaholic realizing the folly of putting personal relationships last; McCarthy and director Craig Gillespie, frankly, do nothing special with either of these clichés. The only hope is that the cast can lift them out of the doldrums.
And again, Million Dollar Arm is fine for what it is, but at the same time, it’s somewhat disappointing that the director of Lars and the Real Girl and the writer of The Visitor and The Station Agent either weren’t able to rise above those meager aims or simply chose not to. Their not-so-secret weapon is Jon Hamm, who uses his old-fashioned movie-star looks with a harder, harsher tone to decent use here. While it’s a far cry from Don Draper (though multiple characters compliment Bernstein on his pitching ability, which seems more sparked by desperation than anything else), J.B. Bernstein is an adequate way for Jon Hamm to open his first star vehicle. (On the flip side: how has it taken 7 years for Hamm to parlay his rightfully deserved TV stardom into a leading role? The closest before now was his supporting work in The Town.) Million Dollar Arm, unlike some of Walt Disney Pictures’ previous live-action work, doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises, for good or ill. Its tension is minimal—there is no big game, just a pitching tryout or two—and its stakes are equally low-key. As proof that Jon Hamm can headline a major motion picture, this does its job. But it does little else.
— Josh Spiegel