Film Review – Million Dollar Arm
Million Dollar Arm
I openly admit that I’m a sucker for sports movies inspired by true stories. The Rookie, Invincible, Rudy, Miracle, Remember the Titans… I’m pretty much a fan of it all. There is something about them distilling the challenges of the underdog overcoming his obstacles that I can’t help but enjoy. At the heart of this niche of filmmaking, one brand has consistently dominated and it probably comes as no surprise that it is Walt Disney Pictures. This Friday marks the release of their latest entry and attempted tearjerker, Million Dollar Arm.
Based on the true story of J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), the plot follows him on a last-ditch attempt to save his sports agency by going to India to recruit cricket players to play in major league baseball. While there, he finds two prospects, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), whom he brings back to America with hopes he has found the next great prospect.
The underdog story is one of the most fundamental staples of Hollywood… Everyone loves to see the lovable loser overcome his or her obstacles. Sports movies tend to provide the easiest framework for this style, since there is a distinct winner and loser at the end, allowing the protagonist to enjoy the spoils of victory and the antagonist to get the just desserts of losing. Million Dollar Arm attempts to take a different approach to this by not having the athletes be the focus and instead making them a mechanism for telling the story rather than the story itself. Disney has always been know for playing it safe, and despite having creative talent like director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and writer Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win), the end result feels like the most vanilla version of the movie that could have been made.
Clearly one of the most popular actors on television (both dramatically and comedically), Jon Hamm has yet to have his moment cinematically. Sure, he was good in the The Town and Bridesmaids, but he has yet to have anything really more meaningful that a supporting role. This isn’t unlike other successful television stars (Bryan Cranston, for example), but as Mad Men starts to wind to a close, he needs to prepare for a time after that. More than being a true sports story, it feels like this movie was built to be a film for Jon Hamm: the story of a charming, self-centered jerk who ultimately discovers the world does not revolve around him—sound familiar? His character ends up being likable enough, but never really feels particularly engaging or conflicted despite all of Hamm’s talent as an actor.
There a couple problems that prevent Million Dollar Arm from living up to the level of other Disney sports films. First, the story focuses on Bernstein and not the athletes overcoming the challenges. Which is more interesting—the story of a privileged, self-centered agent who attempts a comeback by capitalizing on a couple teenagers’ potential, or the story of two young Indian athletes who travel to a foreign country in hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families? The second is the better story, but because Jon Hamm is a bankable name, and was available, they structured it around him. In the world of studio mathematics, they believe it is easier to sell a story with a Caucasian lead, so regardless of which story is best, that is the movie we get. Secondly, the movie is slow paced…so slow that a two hour film felt at least two and a half hours long. The slow pace isn’t necessarily for methodical story progression or anything, it is just slow moving. I felt like at least 20-30 minutes could have been removed and the film would largely remained intact.
One of the biggest mistakes of the movie is the waste of some majorly talented supporting cast. Suraj Sharma was amazing as the younger version of Pi Patel in Life of Pi and Madhur Mittal did strong supporting work in Slumdog Millionaire. Add Lake Bell on top of that, who had her breakout directorial debut last year with In a World, and you have a very talented supporting cast—and yet they essentially aren’t allowed to be anything more than cliches that exist within the world of Jon Hamm’s Bernstein. In essence, the film ends up feeling like a flat version of Jerry Maguire—with all the real emotional weight removed.
Million Dollar Arm isn’t a bad movie despite all my criticism. It has the disadvantage of the bar being raised pretty high for sports movies inspired by true stories. Disney’s fantastic past track record has made its future success more difficult. The story is interesting, albeit a bit misguided and slow. There is a pretty solid movie inside somewhere. I just wish that was the one that Disney had let out. Unless you are a true baseball fan, a true-life movie enthusiast like me, or are familiar with the original story on which this is based, I wouldn’t recommend seeing this—otherwise you are probably OK waiting for this on video.