Review: Well-made ‘Million Dollar Arm’ works more as mythmaking than as a movie

Simply by existing, “Million Dollar Arm” serves as both mythmaking and infomercial in equal measure. Based on the true story of how Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel became professional American baseball players, the film is more than competent in the way it builds a wish fulfillment fairy tale out of a last-ditch effort to save his business by J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent, and why wouldn't it be? Craig Gillespie directs from a screenplay by Thomas McCarthy. That's a rock-solid pedigree, and Jon Hamm plays Bernstein with his Don Draper turned up loud. It's a feel-good story that raises cultural questions that the film doesn't seem terribly interested in answering, and it feels like an easy triple in the grand Disney tradition.

First, dealing with it simply as a film, it's fairly direct and there is an easy charm to it. The agency that J.B. opened is faltering, and when he misses out on signing an NFL star they've been courting for a year, it looks like they're going to have to close the doors. J.B. has one last big idea, though, after a late-night of watching cricket on cable, and decides to create a reality show/contest that will take place in India. They're going to reach out to cricket players and see if they can find someone who they groom to become a baseball player. It's a big jump to make, since cricket really doesn't have much to do with baseball. Even the mechanics that are similar mean very different things to the two different games. But J.B. hopes that he can make it work and end up with a star that his agency can own, lock, stock, and barrel.

That does make me uncomfortable, but that's true of the entire owner/player dynamic in professional sports. I think there are some disturbing cultural echoes inherent to that relationship that we seem loath to deal with, and the idea of creating a reality show just to exploit a new market is cynical on a global scale. I've never seen anything of the “Million Dollar Arm” reality show that evidently aired in India, but this movie feels like the next step in a process designed to build the biographical story that makes Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) more than just players for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They are potent marketing brands, and a film that tells their story, especially one made with this degree of polish, goes a long way to polishing that brand to a full shine.

McCarthy's strengths as a writer are in his grounded, natural sense of character, and he wrote a solid screenplay here. J.B. seems driven but not overtly shitty, so the redemption that is built into his desire to find a new baseball star doesn't seem phoned in, which is the problem in many Hollywood films. Lake Bell plays Brenda, a young doctor who lives in the guest house behind J.B.'s house, and instead of trying to make this an overt love story, Brenda's written as a simple voice of decency poking at J.B.s emotional armor, and Bell is so natural and direct in the choices she makes that it works. They feel like two actual adults making very natural choices, and that is uncommon enough in what studios movies see as “love stories” that that it's worth noting.

There's a major stretch of the film that takes place in India, mining the fish-out-of-water sight of Jon Hamm navigating Indian culture for maximum comedy value, and then another major stretch that takes place when Singh and Patel come to America to train with USC coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), and it reverses the situation. I can't help but think there's something uncomfortable about them being surprised by the existence of pizza or drinking too much because they've never had alcohol. It seems like it's painting them as way less aware of the world than a modern Indian adult is likely to be. It just didn't strike me as genuine. I'm sure it plays to an audience, and Disney's been very public in reporting how well this film did with test audiences, but I felt like it was the most typically Hollywood stretch of the film, and it just didn't play as honest to me. Maybe I'm wrong, but it still made me uncomfortable.

Alan Arkin shows up briefly, and he's exactly what you'd think… wry and funny and crotchety, and Aasif Mandvi has a major supporting role as Aash, one of J.B.'s partners in the agency, and he's as enjoyable as he normally is. Pitobash, who is a hard-working Bollywood actor, gives a memorable comic turn as Amit, the guy who volunteers himself as an all-purpose assitant to J.B. during his time in India. Gillespie does a nice job of staging all of this, and even though this hews pretty closely to sports movie formula, it still unfolds in a way that makes it feel genuine. Maybe it's precisely because of how well-told it is, but I had trouble giving myself over to it, no matter how skilled the filmmaking. This isn't a story from 40 years ago that's finally being brought to life… this is something that was born as a media project, and this is simply one more part of that overall media plan. They might as well have ended the movie with a scene of J.B. sitting in a notes session with some Disney executives while they talk about possible casting choices.

For a feel good movie, it was surprisingly hard for me to feel good about it, and to be honest, I'm not sure if that says more about me or the movie.

“Million Dollar Arm” opens everywhere on Friday, May 16th.