Directed: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Jon Hamm, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Aasif Mandvi, Pitobash, Alan Arkin, Lake Bell
IE Rating: ***
It’s taken nearly six years making Million Dollar Arm to the big screen and it has its heart in the right place.
THIS is the stuff real-life fairy tales are made of, so it’s not surprising Disney would put its weight behind Million Dollar Arm. The story of two teenagers from rural India who hadn’t heard of baseball winning a contest and landing a contract with a major baseball league in the US is too irresistible to have been left alone. It’s taken nearly six years making it to the big screen, and while Million Dollar Arm is not too ambitious in its pitch, it has its heart in the right place.
India is its usual picture of overflowing slums, omnipresent animals, chaotic traffic and unavoidable delays. However, the film doesn’t take a squirmingly indulgent view of it, with its Westerners as exasperated about it as any other well-meaning person. The crankiest of the lot is Arkin, playing talent scout Ray, who couldn’t be bothered to be stirred from his snooze to take in even the Taj. He is there to pick out baseball players and that’s all that stirs him out of his chair.
Picked after the first elimination rounds, Rinku (Sharma) and Dinesh (Mittal) take their baseball benefactors to their dust-laden villages over rickety bridges and trailed by excitable children running barefeet. However, before you start raising your eyebrows, Million Dollar Arm moves on to a heartwarming sequence of US-bound Rinku saying goodbye to his worried mother, and it could be a mother and son anywhere.
Hamm is an inspired choice and perhaps the most obvious one to play J B Bernstein, or “JB Sir”, the broke sports agent who comes up with the idea of taking the Million Dollar Arm baseball talent show to India, which is his only chance to make it back into the business. It’s while flipping between Susan Boyle’s jaw-dropping performance on Britain’s Got Talent and a cricket match featuring India, literally, that he has the brainwave. His assistant, Aash (Mandvi), is happy to go along.
As the groomed smooth talker in sharply tailored corporate suits, there are few to match Hamm (Mad Men). He also has that thing going constantly about his good side vs bad side that fits perfectly with what is demanded of his character.
Sharma has grown as an actor since Life of Pi, much more subtle and settled this time, more at home than seeking to impress. Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire is equally good, while Pitobash as a local baseball coach who joins JB’s venture as an escort and translator for the youths who can’t talk English is the best of the lot.
The film lets them converse in Hindi, while Pitobash’s English flows naturally rather than as an exotic side exchange.
The major grouse is that the film isn’t really about two boys and a dream in India. Disney and director Gillespie clearly believe that the money lies in telling the story as living the great American dream, playing the great American game, and underlining the spread of both across the world.
Rinku and Dinesh have not given baseball a “billion new fans” across the world, as JB repeatedly promises they will and Million Dollar Arm implies. But they are likely to win this film its fair share.