Well, another feel-good baseball movie is being ushered out to compliment the early 2014 MLB season and the Disney machine is the saccharine-coated force behind this whimsical four-bagger fable about dreams, golden opportunities and second chances. Sure, what sports drama does not want to echo these qualifying sentiments? In director Craig Gillespie’s (“Lars and the Real Girl”) inspirational but tediously corny hardball showcase Million Dollar Arm we get a mushy confection of Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire but this dugout dud settles for a predictable bunt instead of a solid single up the middle. Soggily reflective and marginally stimulating, Million Dollar Arm pitches its schmaltzy messaging about a soulless sports agent (Jon Hamm from TV’s “Mad Men”) that gradually learns that lucrative dollar signs and big bonuses are not the true and important components of “playing the competitive game”. Despite its share of obligatory heartstrings and cliched observations of discipline and determination surrounding America’s pastime, Million Dollar Arm trips itself up on the base paths of drippy morals.
As proclaimed, Million Dollar Arm is “based on a true story” mirroring the real-life sporting experiences of agent J.B. Bernstein. Screenwriter Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”, “Win Win”) scripts a derivative sports vehicle that means well but never strives for anything above the inherent gimmick of recruiting foreign standouts fitted for a professional pitching mound as a middle-aged hotshot money-maker tackles hubris in favor of humbleness. Clearly, Million Dollar Arm is indeed indicative of the kind of transparent treat one might anticipate from the Disney brand and to be fair this fluffy base-on-balls narrative does have its moments of charm and poetic clarity. However, one cannot dismiss the formulaic foundation of this particular Million Dollar Arm in need of some Tommy John surgery.
Sports agent J.B. (Hamm) has fallen on some really hard times while striking out on his own to become the enterprising commodity that he imagined himself to be in actuality. Facing the possibility of losing his lavish lifestyle due to him unsuccessfully rounding up any clients that will take on his services J.B. reaches his last straw when an NFL prospect walks away from him. Understandably feeling desperate it takes an incidental broadcast of a cricket game on television to convince J.B. that maybe recruiting one of these Indian athletes with impressive arms (you see…the game of cricket requires the same kind of ball speed, eye/hand coordination, mobility, etc.) could get him and his equally financially suffering business partner Aash (Aasiv Mandvi) back into the groove of sports recruitment. After all, these Indian athletes could be legitimate baseball players here in the States with the kind of talented arms that could conquer major league baseball.
So J.B. entertains the outlandish notion of traveling to India in search of that fastball-throwing phenomenon that could realistically revive his sagging career and pump some needed funds into his empty pockets. Once in India, J.B. and his handlers scour the Indian countryside and helping them determine the ideal candidates for their agenda to recruit some of these cricket players there is a talent contest created to narrow down the gifted hopefuls. Assisting J.B. in his 3-month search for new blood to accompanying them back to the United States is a cranky old coot baseball scout Ray (played by Oscar-winner Alan Arkin) as well as tag-a-long Hindi interpreter Amit (played by Pitobash).
Finally, out of an enormous pool of contenders J.B. settles on two youngsters with enormous potential in Rinku and Dinesh (“Life of Pi’s” Suraj Sharma and “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Madhur Mittel). Predictably, the transplanted Rinku and Dinesh are overwhelmed by the culture shock in America as they reside with J.B. at his place until they get a chance to meet with notable USC pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) as he trains them rigorously for the major league baseball tryouts. The language barrier and American technology are a few of the obstacles that these young men have difficulty coping with as the audience is suppose to find comedic and endearing comfort in the staged shenanigans.
Hence, J.B. and his prized houseguests bond as time goes by until they build a mutual respect for one another. Suddenly, J.B. does not see Rinku and Dinesh as just another convenient meal ticket to get his professional prowess reignited once again. The softening J.B. lightens up even more when he spends some leisurely time with pretty medical student Brenda Fenwick (Lake Bell from “In A World…”) who is renting on his property. Brenda’s affable and encouraging and yes…you did not have to telegraph that a budding romance would spark between the two attractive lonely hearts. The materialistic sports agent J.B. Bernstein is now being buried by the compassionate and motivating soul as it takes teamwork (both on and off the field) to make this man comprehend the more magical and humanistic side of baseball. As much as Million Dollar Arm wants to celebrate its triumphant spirit one cannot escape the blanket of triteness that clumsily hovers over these proceedings. The whole scenario-from Hamm’s J.B. Bernstein transformation from money-grubbing shark to a good-nature goldfish to the fish-out-of-water impish antics of Sharma’s/Mittel’s homesick baseball wannabes-feels so pretentiously packaged and jumbled into a static cling of chalkboard emotions.
Hamm, a well-known fan of his hometown baseball team in the St. Louis Cardinals, seems enthusiastic about this on-screen project that is near and dear to his ball-playing heart but the material is as flat and jagged as home plate within the batter’s box. Bell is serviceable as the love interest Brenda but Arkin’s signature curmudgeon is tiring and repetitive. The Indian locale shots are exquisite and Million Dollar Arm works effectively as a travelogue more so than a breezy poignant sports melodrama with consciousness.
Sadly, it is time to send this Million Dollar Arm to the showers as the late innings approach.
Million Dollar Arm (2014)
Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mitta, Alan Arkin
Walt Disney Pictures
CRITIC’S RATING: ** stars (out of 4 stars)