Over the past decade or so, Disney has released several outstanding sports-related true stories dealing with overcoming adversity. These include Kurt Russell’s Olympic hockey film, Miracle; Dennis Quaid’s major league baseball drama, The Rookie; Mark Wahlberg’s NFL football flick, Invincible; and Josh Lucas’s college basketball movie, Glory Road. Each one of these films is a perfect example in how to be thoroughly entertaining while crafting an inspirational story that pushes you to be more than you are and honoring those from which the story was based. So when Disney used these films (most notably, Miracle and Invincible) to advertise Million Dollar Arm, they inadvertently set the bar for the film so high, it would be near impossible, even for a film about rising above the odds to succeed, to live up to the magic of its predecessors.
Million Dollar Arm tells the true story of J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a down-on-his-luck sports agent who decides to create a contest to convert the best Cricket players in India into major league pitchers. After an exhaustive search that seems to be a lost cause, he finally finds his finalists in Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), both of whom are brought back to the United States to train with Tom House (Bill Paxton), a coach out of the University of Southern California who sees the opportunity as a chance to advertise the advantages of his training techniques (though absolutely against parading the boys around like a spectacle).
All of the actors do a fine job in their respective roles, most notably Paxton, who is more subtle and toned-down than I think I’ve ever seen him. His ability to participate in respectful arguments, quietly defend the boys, and convey the technical dialogue with the rhythm of a real pro make his scenes some of the best in the film. So much so that I wanted to see a lot more of his techniques and his interactions with the players. Unfortunately, that aspect of the film takes a backseat to J.B. and his attempt to revolutionize the way baseball teams draft their players, which lead to his journey of finding his emotional center and becoming a better man.
Director Craig Gillespie handles J.B.’s growth with a natural hand, but he does so at the detriment of Rinku and Dinesh, who deserved an equal amount of attention and screen time, but were given very little to do. This story wasn’t just about J.B., it was about all three of these men and how they grow to respect each other through the game of baseball. If they had given Rinku and Dinesh the same amount of importance as J.B., the transitions each of them make throughout the film would have blended much more naturally. But because most of the boys growth, both as players in the game and as men, were sidelined to focus more on J.B., the film felt incredibly unbalanced, and left the climactic moments to be much less inspiring than they should have been.
What really gives the movie life, despite this emotional brick wall, was the amazing chemistry between Sharma, Mittal and Pitobash, who plays their translator-slash-wanna-be coach, Amit. The three of them are clearly having fun together, a quality that melts into their relationships with all of the other actors. In fact, Pitobash steals almost every scene from the moment he steps on screen in his no-holds barred attempt at joining J.B. on his quest to find his new pitchers, to the very emotional speech at the end of the film that is both sweet and funny wrapped in the perfect amount of awkwardness and bravery.
The same can’t be said for Hamm and Lake Bell as J.B.’s guesthouse tenant, Brenda. To believe that these two characters are meant (or destined) to fall in love was difficult since there wasn’t an ounce of chemistry between them. It almost felt as if Gillespie tried his best to make something happen between them, but ultimately gave up, producing instead an extremely strained and uneasy courtship. That’s not to say Lake Bell is a bad actress — she had terrific chemistry with Sharma and Mittal, but the relationship that mattered turned out to be nothing more than a flat attempt at romance.
I also felt that there was a real lack in the exploration of culture shock that these real-life players had to have experienced. Again, the scenes of J.B. fitting into Indian culture and overcoming his discomfort were generally good (if not glossed over a little too easily), but for a couple of boys who have never left India to fit so well into American culture without so much as one tear-filled night in response to missing their home felt a little disingenuous. Yes, they talk about missing home, and there are some good moments of anxiety, but I don’t think it was enough to feel the emotional impact of when they rise above it all to bring their A-game to the major league tryouts.
Even with these issues, though, the film is still a very fun, enjoyable ride. The baseball sequences (though very limited) are good, showcasing the development of mechanics that Sharma and Mittal had to have endured to give authenticity to their performances, and all of the story elements were developed nicely, leaving me in admiration of Rinku and Dinesh and the dedication they conveyed in reaching their ultimate goals. Even though I wish I could have seen more of this on screen, there is no denying that these two boys really did find a strength that not many of us are brave enough to capture.
It was clear that Million Dollar Arm wanted to be about how J.B., Rinku and Dinesh become a family together during their journey, but because of its hit-and-miss bag of emotions, incidents and struggles, it felt as if the filmmakers were attempting to reach for something they didn’t have a full understanding of. By the end of a movie like this, I want to feel as if I have no choice but to stand and cheer for the underdogs and the victories they’ve gained, but no matter how proud I was of the achievements of these three men, I simply didn’t feel at all like cheering.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Angriest Man in Brooklyn and Blended. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.