“Show me the fastball!” The most famous film about the life of a sports agent is 1996’s Oscar-winning football dramedy, “Jerry Maguire”. The last sports movie to win the Best Picture Oscar was the 2004 Clint Eastwood boxing drama, “Million Dollar Baby”. 10 years later, Disney uses 2/3 of that title for their newest “Based on a True Story”, feel-good underdog film. “Million Dollar Arm” is centered around baseball and it takes several pages out of the studio’s typical sports movie playbook, and even writes a few new ones.
Jon Hamm (nominated for seven Emmys for playing Don Draper on “Mad Men”) stars as JB Bernstein, a struggling LA sports agent who desperately needs a new client. His sights are set on a NFL star, but that deal falls through. In one of the film’s many far-fetched moments, somehow flipping back-and-forth between watching Susan Boyle’s audition on “Britain’s Got Talent” (the story is set in 2008) and a cricket match on cable TV gives JB the idea to hold a contest in India to try to find two cricket players who can be brought to America and turned into professional baseball pitchers.
“Million Dollar Arm” is a little over 2-hours (it feels even longer), and it takes nearly half that time just to find the two candidates among the thousands who try out all over the country. Rinku (“Life of Pi”‘s Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) are young athletes (who don’t play cricket) who win the contest, leave India and their families behind and head to the USA. They can both throw 85-mile-an-hour fastballs, which is a good start. Once in LA the boys get a coach to teach them baseball basics, and they have only one year to make this experiment work. But they also need to learn about life in America, and JB struggles in his role as a father-figure.
And, of course, there’s a full line-up of subplots: Lake Bell (“In a World…”) plays a medical student and JB’s tenant. These two start a relationship you can see coming from the last row in the bleachers, but it’s surprisingly tolerable. Bill Paxton plays real-life USC pitching coach Tom House, who disapproves with the way JB is handling the players. And Alan Arkin is in his usual form as a sarcastic, retired scout. The script strikes-out with most attempts at humor, except in a few scenes involving Arkin.
Practically every scene in “Million Dollar Arm” could’ve been tightened, which would have made this very formulaic effort much more enjoyable. Instead, we get a slow, deliberate film which mixes corny and sentimental in the worst possible ways. The script attempts to focus on the professional and personal struggles of both JB and the two players. But Hamm gets most of the screen time (he’s in practically every scene), so we never become emotionally attached to the young boys and their long-shot opportunity. And Hamm’s performance is consistently monotone. Sports agents (and I know a few) are normally energetic and enthusiastic. Bernstein is dull and depressing, even in his rare, upbeat moments. At no point does Hamm command the screen.
The successful aspects of “Million Dollar Arm” include the score by Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” composer A.R. Rahman, which meshes upbeat Indian and American music beautifully. And the cinematography, especially involving the scenes in India, is impressive. The cross-cultural aspect of this story is interesting, but it’s underplayed in favor of tired cliches. And diehard sports fans looking for this to be a home run are going to be disappointed, as the “inside world of baseball” is not a major focus.
“Million Dollar Arm” is rated PG for some adult and suggestive dialogue. It’s appropriate for kids 10 and up. Even though it’s based on real-life events, most people who see this film will not have heard much about the story heading in. The problem is, by spending too much time on the agent and not enough on “the arms”, this million dollar deal isn’t worth getting excited about.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Million Dollar Arm” gets a C.