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With checklist precision, Disney’s Million Dollar Arm hits all of the beats expected of an underdog sports movie, but that’s about all it does. That’s not to say it isn’t a good movie; rather, it’s merely a “good” movie.
Director Craig Gillespie and writer Tom McCarthy are seemingly content with delivering nothing more than a base hit with no desire to go that extra, edgier mile to become a home run. It’s a movie you master after one viewing, and quickly forget soon after.
Based on the true story, Million Dollar Arm centers on J.B. Bernstein (the extremely likable Jon Hamm), a driven sports agent struggling to get his company back on track after a rival scoops a potential big client. Bernstein’s out-of-the-box plan? Head to India and throw a Million Dollar Arm reality TV competition, in an effort to find the next Major League Baseball star in a country full of cricket players.
The story’s underdog elements quickly click into place like safe tumblers, as Bernstein returns with two potential all-stars in tow: 18-year-olds Rinku and Dinesh, played by Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Dinesh Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), respectively.
Their recruitment and training drive the story as it heads into fish-out-of-water territory, delivering its best moments as Bernstein and his young hopefuls find more than an appreciation of athletics to forge engaging and heartfelt bonds that rise above the pedestrian nature of Arm’s three-star movie aims.
Hamm grounds the film with his effortless ability to give each scene exactly what it needs; no more, no less. And his comedy chops continue to impress, as does solid supporting work from the always-reliable Alan Arkin. The Oscar winner shows up briefly, finding nuance playing yet another grumpy-but-likable curmudgeon – this time as a retired baseball scout prone to taking naps and dishing out the occasional trailer-friendly one-liner.
Bill Paxton is his serviceable self, giving Tom House, the USC coach with less than a year to turn Bernstein’s Hail Marys into ball players, more personality than what’s on the page.
What doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers imagine is the love story between Hamm’s character and Brenda, Bernstein’s next-door neighbor played by Lake Bell. She quickly becomes the boys’ clever mother figure, in between on-the-nose banter with the guy who should be taking on a much more fatherly role with his new recruits. In doing so, Bell is more than game with Brenda; she’s just not given enough to do because of her paint-by-numbers role.
And “paint-by-numbers” is the last description one would expect for a film penned by the talented McCarthy, who also wrote and directed the inspired Win Win, one of the genre’s best entries of the past decade. McCarthy’s penchant for creating grounded, relatable characters manages to carry over from Win to his latest film, albeit in very base forms. The narrative spark that distinguished his previous work on The Station Agent is dulled by Gillespie’s hit-the-marks direction. (Maybe the Disney brand softened the edge of the Lars and the Real Girl helmer.)
What Gillespie does do effectively is elevate the average storyline with above-average performances – especially Hamm’s. He does for the Mad Men actor what Robert Rodriguez did for ER’s George Clooney in From Dusk Till Dawn: He gives audiences a new movie star.
As active as the filmmakers are in delivering effective down-the-middle entertainment, they seemingly lack any desire to address the controversy surrounding Bernstein’s Hail Mary play to save the agency. Going to India to recruit teenagers and groom them to become corporate assets and marketing tools is a can of worms seemingly no one wants to open, or even acknowledge. What could give the film a much-needed extra layer is passed over in favor of jokes about foreigners not knowing what pizza is – which presents an even bigger issue.
Given the pedigree of the talent involved, the most surprising thing about Million Dollar Arm is its lack of surprising narrative choices. It neither commits any terrible storytelling offenses nor takes any significant creative risks. It plays everything safe; a charming piece of well-acted, rainy-day entertainment.
Despite its missed opportunities, Million Dollar Arm does deliver a good time at the movies worth talking about – just don’t expect that conversation to last longer than the time it takes to drive home from the theater.
Million Dollar Arm opens Friday nationwide.