Madhur Mittal, Suraj Sharma and Pitobash get a lot less screentime than Jon Hamm in "Million Dollar Arm." Credit: Ron Phillips
'Million Dollar Arm' Director: Craig Gillespie Stars: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell Rating: PG 2 (out of 5) Globes
There are two competing forces in the docudrama “Million Dollar Arm": one unique, if generally familiar; the other thoroughly, even calmingly old-hat. It tells of how Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, two kids from India, were found after an exhaustive search and installed in the MLB. The idea was to find cricket bowlers and make them baseball pitchers. But the search was such a logistical mess — having been turned into a massive contest that roamed from city to city — that its two winners wound up not cricket players, or even fans, at all. They were just good throwers, found like two needles in a haystack.
That’s interesting, if perhaps not worthy of an entire movie. And so “Million Dollar Arm” attaches a more formulaic storyline: that of a workaholic — in this case sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) — who learns to chill out, care about people with whom he’s not doing business and not bang exclusively hotcha models. As it turns out salvation is literally in his back yard: He rents out a bungalow to a pretty, funny, game nurse (Lake Bell) who’s not above flirting with stressed-out, shallow businessesmen (who look like Jon Hamm). There’s only one way this is going to go, and that’s not a bad thing; films like this are essentially comfort food.
Lake Bell gives "Million Dollar Arm" a strange energy. Credit: Ron Phillips
But the script, by Thomas McCarthy (“Win Win”), so favors the JB side that all else falls by the wayside. That includes Patel and Singh (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma), as well as excitable aspiring coach Amit (Pitobash). Ostensibly the focus of the story, they’re reduced to types, given one personality tic each — although Singh’s is simply that when he pitches, he winds into a cool crane-like position then holds there for an eternity. McCarthy previously made “The Visitor,” which reduced a Palestinian-Syrian immigrant to an exotic, unflappable other. He shows similar disinterest in his Indian characters as people; they’re bumbling, super-powered or simply taking up space, depending on the script’s momentary needs. When they first arrive in America, they’re even reduced to those dumb jokes about rural types not understanding the basics of “civilized” culture, like how one doesn’t go up the down escalator. (Has this ever happened except in movies like this?)
This isn’t to say that “Million Dollar Arm” fails to deliver the goods. In fact, some of it is downright understated. There isn’t a ton of baseball here, not even a standard training montage that finds Patel and Singh evolving from wild-pitching amateurs with potential to worthy of being signed to Major League teams. But the lack of these Inspirational Sports Drama staples assures that on the few chances they actually strut their stuff, or try to, the scenes are unusually dramatic. We’re not sure how well they’ll pitch, even if we actually do, because we know the story (or read about it on Wikipedia) or recognize this genre’s beats. But they play surprisingly. And that makes “Million Dollar Arm” semi-successful at the modest thing it’s trying to be — that and, more importantly, Lake Bell, who brings an unusual, fun, not quite Manic Pixie Dream Girl energy to a type of film that always needs personality.