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Thursday, May 15, 2014 12:01 am

Arm the same old game

Lake Bell as Brenda Paauwe and Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm.
PHOTO COURTESY WALT DISNEY PICTURES

 

In 2007, sport agent J.B. Bernstein was in trouble. Having failed to sign any big name clients after deciding to set up his own firm, he was in danger of not only losing his business but his home as well. However, he came up with an idea for a talent search that would focus on finding an Indian cricket player with just enough ability to perhaps become a pitcher for a major league baseball team. The result was the “Million Dollar Arm,” a live televised event that features 20 hopefuls, culled from over 38,000(!) participants from across India, who would compete to see who would win the grand prize of $100,000, a trip to America to train and the opportunity to tryout for a big league team. (The second place winner was awarded $10,000 and brought to the States as well.)

If this sounds like the sort of fairy tale, feel-good story that would make a good Disney film than you would be right. The studio now gives us Craig Gillespie’s Million Dollar Arm, a passable, predictable piece of entertainment that barely gets by on the strength and charm of its cast. A sure crowd-pleaser, the movie sports a premise that audiences know well and seem to embrace each time it’s dropped in their laps, namely that of underdogs overcoming all odds to succeed in the world of sports. That the film rarely wanders far from this comfort zone is to be expected. It gives the audience exactly what it’s paying for. However, with nods toward Jerry Maguire and Slumdog Millionaire the movie seems not only too familiar but also shamelessly derivative, which does it no favors.

As Bernstein, Jon Hamm, looking perpetually jetlagged here and lacking the charisma of a true movie star, does a serviceable job as the agent who grows a heart once he’s forced to take two 18-year-old prospects under his wing. While the actor is on screen nearly the whole of the film’s bloated two-hour running time, he gets ample support from Lake Bell as Bernstein’s tenant who becomes his love interest and Alan Arkin who plays a cynical, crusty ex-baseball scout. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the script didn’t refer to this as the “Alan Arkin role.”)

However, the film’s charm comes from the three actors who play the Indian transplants. They not only genuinely convey the wonder and awe the two prospects and their translator experienced when they came to Los Angeles but the sense of responsibility they felt toward Bernstein, their families and their country as they tried to do them all proud. Suraj Sharma as Singh and Madhur Mittal as Patel win us over instantly. We see them struggle to better themselves and their families while they chase their improbable dream. This film’s strongest moments occur in India, not simply because we see Bernstein floundering out of his element, but because Gillespie finds a sincerity in the scenes between Patel and his proud, distant father and Singh and his worried mother that are lacking later in the movie, when so many of the big moments feel contrived and staged. Sharma and Mittal win our hearts while Pitobash as their translator and wannabe baseball coach Amit tickles our funny bone with his near manic turn as the overly enthusiastic cheerleader for the boys.

It’s obvious that this is just a paying gig for Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy, who’s written and directed much edgier fare with The Visitor and Win, Win. If this allows them to do more of the sort of meaningful, independent work they’ve done in the past, then at least something good will have come from Arm. As it is, this is standard issue fare, occasionally moving and effective, comforting in its predictability, yet hardly groundbreaking or distinctive.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.



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