For about seven years, Disney cornered the market on ‘true sports’ movies (“Remember the Titans,” “The Rookie,” “Miracle,” “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” etc.). Unfortunately, that seventh year was eight years ago, which makes “Million Dollar Arm” quite the fish out of water. Perhaps Disney thinks that this is the one that will start the next wave of true sports movies. They’d be mistaken, though: the movie is at least 20 minutes too long and spends too much time setting up the redemption of the lead character. It boasts solid performances from the supporting cast, and has heart and smarts to spare, but even this diehard baseball fan was looking at his watch before the credits rolled.
Sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is running out of options. The upstart firm that he started with friend and colleague Aash (Aasif Mandvi) is nearly broke and has no roster to speak of. When his chance at reeling in a big fish goes south, J.B. realizes that he needs an angle, something no one else has considered in terms of global scouting. Inspired by Aash’s love of cricket, J.B. decides to head to India to hold a competition to find the next great baseball pitcher in a country rich with athletic talent. The two finalists are Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, who looks like an Indian Bruno Mars), and J.B. takes these two boys, who have never left the towns in which they were born, to Los Angeles, and expects that they will be fine on their own in a hotel. Hey, he’s a single guy, and he doesn’t have time to be an agent and a role model and a caretaker. He has deals to make and women to bed, people!
Those last two lines serve as the backdrop for far more scenes than they should. J.B. gets what he thinks is another chance to land the big fish – meanwhile, my colleague Jason Zingale says to me, “Why doesn’t he just go after a bunch of middle-tier athletes that the prestigious agencies will overlook, instead of banking everything on one guy?”, and he has an excellent point – and takes the boys to a party that is wildly inappropriate for them and their limited experience in America. This scene exists for several reasons (gross-out humor and a dose of perspective, mainly), but since the movie delivers those same moments elsewhere, it feels redundant to do them again.
This is what makes the supporting characters so important; they pop up just when the movie is about to go off the rails. Surprisingly, Alan Arkin does not steal the show as the grizzled veteran scout Ray. He’s funny, of course, but Bill Paxton’s turn as the none-more-Zen Tom House (think Phil Jackson, but with baseball) has more heft. Lake Bell is almost literally the angel sitting on Hamm’s shoulder, as she plays the med student who lives in his guest house, pumps money into his ever-shrinking bottom line, serves as a den mother to the boys, and straightens J.B. out when necessary, all the while delivering some amusing one-liners. Screenwriter Thomas McCarthy should get some credit as well; while his script is too long, the dialogue is punchy enough to keep things humming, and he manages to wring a fair amount of suspense out of a story that we all knew would not have the happy ending that most of these movies boast. Do you know of any Indian Major League Baseball players? There you go.
“Million Dollar Arm” is not going to serve as the launching point for the next wave of true sports films, and it lands somewhere in the middle in terms of the best baseball movies ever made. Still, it has its charms, and while baseball fans may not give it “Bull Durham”-esque reverence (and they won’t), it’s still worth seeing. It speaks to the importance of loving the game that you’re playing, and that is never a bad thing, even when it takes an extra 20 minutes to say it.