MILLION DOLLAR ARM Review: Don’t Hate the Game, Hate the Player
When you think about it, a large percentage of movies that are easily classified within certain genres are relatively predictable. Action movies, horror movies, and romantic comedies (to name three big ones) usually contain certain genre-specific elements, follow genre-specific beats and structures, and offer endings that come as no surprise. Because these genres are in demand, Hollywood will supply them, but in order to stand out from the rest of the pack, the uniqueness of the details within a film in any genre becomes critical to its success.
Everything above holds true for the feel-good sports movie genre, random examples of which contain most or all of these elements: a character looking for redemption/salvation (consider a down-on-his-luck player or coach); an underdog looking for a break or one last chance (an athlete, team, or coach); a considerable sports-related setback (injury, defeat, even death); some type of romance (where you least expect it, of course); a cagey veteran; and a climactic moment leading to a satisfying ending (usually defined by victory, but not exclusive to that).
Disney provides the latest feel-good sports movie genre offering with Million Dollar Arm, which hits the genre-specific marks and offers uniqueness of detail perfectly well, but finds itself undermined by a redemption-seeking character who isn’t worth saving.
JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is an independent sports agent in a jam. By losing his prized NFL prospect to a large corporate agency, JB is on the verge of losing everything he has – not just his business, but his home, his car, everything. Since he can’t convince current athletes to join his agency, he has to find unknown talent. Inspired while flipping channels between a cricket match and a reality TV competition, JB has an idea: tap the untapped Indian market in search of an athlete who can compete in the US – specifically, find a cricket “bowler” (the equivalent of a baseball pitcher) good enough to pitch in the major leagues.
Leaving his #2 man, Aash (Aasif Mandvi), in L.A. to keep the business on life support, JB travels to India and holds a national contest to find the best bowlers in the country, guaranteeing to the top two finishers a cash prize and a trip to the US for a chance to sign with a Major League Baseball franchise. The two best bowlers in the countless field of hopefuls are Rinku and Dinesh (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, respectively), and with JB and manager-in-training/translator Amit (Pitobash) they travel to California, where they train with USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), and where they become friends with the woman who rents the bungalow on JB’s property, Brenda (Lake Bell).
Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm indeed has everything a feel-good sports movie should have. JB is the character looking for salvation. Rinku and Dinesh are the underdogs looking for a break. There is a sports-related setback that I will not spoil here. There is a romance that I will not spoil here. The cagey veteran comes in the form of retired baseball pitching scout Ray (Alan Arkin). And of course, there is a climactic moment that leads to a satisfying ending, the specifics of which I will not spoil here. (Oh, and one of the guys buys his dad a new truck. Doesn’t someone’s dad always need a new truck in these things?)
The uniqueness of detail here lies in the dichotomy of two cultures. Rinku and Dinesh hail from a part of the world that has never heard of many of the things we take for granted, and if they have heard of them, they’ve certainly never known them to exist to the degree that modern, affluent American life can provide them. They are the proverbial “fish out of water,” but the humor that comes from this is subtle, and the young men are never mocked for their heritage (thankfully). The lads also introduce into JB’s life several value-based beliefs, such as prayer and family. Neither are overt, and both are about who they are (not just what they do). It’s when the dichotomy changes direction that film shows its glaring weakness.
When JB is the American fish in Indian waters, he is shocked by the rustic day-to-day life of the country. That’s perfectly fine; I would be too. But for his months-long stay, with the exception of the eve of his departure when a going-away party is held, all he ever does is complain. The traffic is bad. The horn-honking is annoying. The air conditioning doesn’t work. The food gives him gastrointestinal issues. There’s even a sense that he’s off-put by everyone’s permanent politeness.
Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy portray JB as a stereotypical boorish American who is so spoiled on the creature comforts of America, he refuses to adjust to any lifestyle that doesn’t meet that standard, even though he knows he’ll be there for a while. And for an entrepreneur who’s trying to save his business, he has no enthusiasm; it’s as if he’s being inconvenienced by his own professional collapse. This is the tip of the iceberg that leads to the film’s fatal flaw:
JB Bernstein is completely unlikable and by the halfway point of the film, I found myself not caring about his success.
It’s no wonder JB’s business is failing in the first place. For someone whose professional trade is the world of sports, he’s surprisingly dismissive of cricket, a sport that is popular with over a billion people (and their money, something he should connect). And, in that boorish American way, he mocks it because he doesn’t understand it and doesn’t care to learn. If that boor is some random guy at the corner diner, I don’t care. But when it’s the film’s protagonist, the supposed hero of the picture, it hinders the film.
And for someone whose professional role is that of sports agent, a job that relies heavily on nurturing relationships, he has a terrible rapport with people; it’s almost instinctive for him to treat people in the exact opposite manner one should treat someone else. He sees all people as a collective means to an end, turning on them on a dime when things don’t go his way. And when he is called on it by Brenda – more than once – he makes only half-hearted efforts to change until it is far too late in the story to care.
There is plenty of good in Million Dollar Arm, including Bell and Mandvi, the collective charisma of the Indian cast, a great soundtrack from A.R. Rahman, and the overall feel-good tale. There is also a wonderful epilogue of footage featuring the real-life Rinku and Dinesh. If you enjoy this genre, you will enjoy this film, just don’t expect to induct JB Bernstein into the Redeemed Sports Movie Hero Hall of Fame.