Million Dollar Arm
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin
Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG | 120 Minutes
Release Date: May 16, 2013
Million Dollar Arm strikes the right feeling in Disney’s winning line of sports films. With an aptly cast Jon Hamm portraying real-life agent J.B. Bernstein, the movie balances the essence of the tough and sometimes manipulative world of athletics with the right amount of heartwarming spirit. But does Arm play hardball or go straight for the sentiment? The uplifting tone may be everything you would expect, but the journey it takes in reaching that point throws some curveballs along the way.
This “based on a true story” film, focusing on how down-on-his-luck Bernstein enlists two talented athletes from India with the goal of transforming them into Major League Baseball players, follows some of the typical notes. Like other sports films, it’s an underdog story featuring athletes and their coaches overcoming struggles. The jubilant mood shifts to gloom when one bad scenario seems to dismantle everything these players had worked toward. And a happy resolution wraps this up in a neat package.
But Disney’s Million Dollar Arm is so much more than checking off boxes in the standards of a sports film. At least for me, who has seen these plays repeatedly in feel-good movies like The Blind Side, Arm manages to own both its cloyingness and seriousness. Yet the pleasantness does not dismiss the faculty in which Craig Gillespie, its director, guides the movie through different scenarios.
For one, Bernstein, a difficult to embrace character, unlike many of the great lovable coaches, is depicted as self-centered and unsympathetic. That is, until the reality of his actions hit home. Bernstein travels to India to recruit baseball players – most of whom had only played cricket – and finds some fortune in Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal). These two young men come from humble backgrounds in settings that fortunate Bernstein cannot relate to. Bernstein brings these gifted athletes back to his homeland (Los Angeles) with the intentions of training them for the MLB that hopefully includes a mighty check.
While the film ventures not to explore that element until later in the film – albeit briefly – Million Dollar Arm flourishes in delineating various regions of India. It’s hard for a mainstream American film to capture a foreign setting in a compelling manner, yet it weaves in the ravishing, although occasionally congested scenes in an authentic style. Cinematographer Gyula Pados and editor Tatiana S. Riegel deserve much praise in illustrating these scenes, complemented by the rhythmic score of composer A.R. Rahman, best known for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. Find out more about the music in this clip below from the DisneyMovieTrailers YouTube channel.
Sure, the driving score sets the mood of the movie, often contrasting in form according to the depicted locale, but this only serves as one element that gives Million Dollar Arm its unique and lovely flavor. Supporting performances by Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, and Alan Arkin, along with the wonderful work of Hindi actor Pitobash, nicely accompany Hamm, Sharma, and Mittal. Everyone here is suitable for his or her respective role, giving each a realistic identity.
While I wish the movie would have delved more into the athletes’ past – instead the movie is kept more ethnocentric, likely for the sake of American audiences – I could understand the characters. Sharma and Mittal are nuanced performers who steal their scenes, only trumped by Pitobash, both uproarious and compelling. Bell is congenial, as you would expect from her inspired work in In A World, allowing Hamm’s character to show an alternative side. Paxton and Arkin are similarly solid in their smaller, but still important roles as a smart USC coach and a frequently sleeping sports scout, respectively.
Sports films have a tough job in making the at-times obscure terminology and methods accessible to audience members who may not be familiar with the game, along with just translating this material into something interesting or marketable. Fortunately, Million Dollar Arm is not the type of movie that centers on a team we only know a few of the characters on – or even on just a coach – where we cannot connect with any of the athletes. This alternative storytelling approach, in its spotlight on Bernstein and, to a lesser extent, Singh and Patel, works relatively well. They are complex individuals who do not feel like forced, one-dimensional people. Singh and Patel struggle with acclimating to a new environment. Although this is played for laughs a few times too many, I could understand their difficulties. The movie experiences some setbacks in its occasionally uneven pacing and stretched-out structure, but on the other hand, it allows us to see more of the characters’ development.
Once again, Disney contends with opening a pleasing and strong piece of counterprogramming against a giant and suffers the consequences. Muppets Most Wanted could not stand up against Divergent, and neither can Million Dollar Arm against Godzilla. The vitality of an appropriate release date cannot be emphasized enough, and had the movie opened in the middle of April, per se, I think it could have reached a much larger audience than its opening weekend. It grossed a mere $10.5 million, the lowest opening of any Disney sports film since the limited release of 2005’s The Greatest Game Ever Played. Disney’s other 2014 sports film (Kevin Costner’s McFarland) opens the week before Thanksgiving, but perhaps that competitive release date – around the time of the next Hunger Games entry – will translate into another film flopping financially for Costner.
Million Dollar Arm merits more than being an overlooked film you may catch on demand once it sees a home release. Its poignant storyline featuring a great cast, interesting locales, and an emotive undercurrent, makes this Disney’s most gripping sports film since perhaps 2002’s The Rookie. While Miracle, The Rookie, and Remember The Titans may continue to stand as the “top three” of the modern family sports picture, Million Dollar Arm warrants a spot in that field.
This may not be Hamm’s defining role in movies – and hopefully the low box office earnings of Arm does not jeopardize his film career – but he and all of his co-stars work to make this one of the most fittingly cast Disney films in recent history. That connects back to the vision of a strong director and casting team, but even with all of the best players, a film – or an actual Major League team – can lose the game. Box office disappointment aside, Million Dollar Arm wins in its glorious, although slightly re-told biography of a contest aimed to change lives that resulted in everyone experiencing different types of victories. That’s something I can root for.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.