Film Review: Million Dollar Arm

Charming true-life tale of a sports agent's search for a pitching sensation from the world of Indian cricket. Audience word of mouth should be robust.

The phrase Slumdog Millionaire meets Jerry Maguire” probably came up during the Disney pitch meeting for Million Dollar Arm, but the resulting film is so much more than just a high concept. This improbable but true story is based on the journey of sports agent JB Bernstein to India to find a cricket player who could be groomed as a pitcher for Major League Baseball. That off-the-wall scheme turns out to have all the elements for a classic sports-underdog movie, with the extra spice of culture-clash comedy and pathos.

Jon Hamm, whose compelling charisma was evident from the first moments of the first episode of “Mad Men,” proves he can carry a feature film as Bernstein, here portrayed as a onetime major honcho who’s been struggling since he went independent. One night while channel surfing, images of an Indian cricket match and unlikely contestant Susan Boyle wowing the judges on “Britain’s Got Talent” merge in his brain, and he hits on the idea that a fast-bowling cricket lover might have the raw talent for American baseball.

The film quickly segues to hot, teeming India, where JB, backed by a Chinese-American entrepreneur, sets in motion a TV reality-show competition with a $100,000 prize and a chance to sign with a U.S. team. JB is accompanied on his tour of Indian cities by grumpy veteran scout Ray Poitevint (a reliably acerbic Alan Arkin) and a diminutive, eager Indian assistant named Amit (local comedian Pitobash). Alas, the candidates range from mediocre to hopeless, until two talented 18-year-olds emerge: Rinku (Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, the older brother in Slumdog Millionaire), the latter of whom is prone to elaborate rituals before letting loose the ball. (As it turns out, neither contestant is a fan of cricket, much less baseball.)

JB brings the wide-eyed, unworldly boys to Los Angeles, but after they inadvertently create havoc at their hotel, he is forced to house them at his bachelor pad. There, they’re befriended by JB’s next-door tenant Brenda (Lake Bell), a medical student whose relationship with serial dater JB has always been strictly business…until now.

Under pressure from his backer, JB is given a strict deadline to turn his discoveries into bona fide professional-baseball prospects, with the aid of USC pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). The road to victory is anything but smooth, and JB himself learns a few lessons about his own priorities in life.

The script by the estimable Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win) hits all the Screenwriting 101 beats of an underdog tale, but those predictable elements are bolstered by rich character relationships. Rinku and Dinesh’s exposure to Western culture and the L.A. lifestyle is both amusing and poignant, as the driven JB tends to view them as an investment rather than two confused and overwhelmed teenagers in an alien world. This ostensible sports movie also has a secret ingredient that should create strong word of mouth among the female demographic: a mature and adult story of growing love and respect between the sometimes thorny JB and his feisty neighbor played by the highly appealing Bell. For his part, Hamm—as he does on “Mad Men”—isn’t afraid to show the less attractive sides of his character, yet somehow remains sympathetic and intriguing. Credit is also certainly due to director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) for the film’s engaging performances.

Producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray have delivered four previous upbeat sports movies for Disney: The Rookie, Miracle, Invincible and Secretariat. With the delightful and satisfying Million Dollar Arm, their batting average is one for the record books.

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