“I’m in the middle of a prayer right now.”
Most sports films have a singular goal, and that is to inspire. From start to finish, the intentions are always the greatest, and when the final game comes to a close the filmmakers hope that you will jump and cheer for the central team or players as if you were sitting in the actual stands. Sometimes it works flawlessly, like Miracle and Remember the Titans, other times the formula is just a bit too obvious and the story a tad too droll for any uplifting juices to really get going. In the off chance that the formula is bypassed, the result has been masterful (The Wrestler), but even when the formula is abided by, it’s all dependent on the viewers’ own desires to get washed away in the film’s enthusiasm and accept the impact. Craig Gillespie’s Million Dollar Arm is that kind of sports film. Its deviations from the formula are few and far between, and the story’s casual arc can be outlined beat for beat well before anyone even sits down in a theater to begin watching, but it remains steady thanks to Tom McCarthy’s warm screenplay and Jon Hamm’s solid lead performance. It won’t be the film that makes you fall in love with baseball all over again, nor will it really provide deep enlightenment toward the true story in which it’s based on, but if you let go of its superficiality and let it do what it wants so desperately to do, Million Dollar Arm is a slightly above average trip to the movies.
JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is batting full count. The once-successful sports agent has found himself edged out by bigger, richer companies and after losing his next big client, he’s got to do some quick and original thinking if he wants to keep his business. So he cooks up something ambitious: scour the core towns and cities of India for a cricket player who can be molded into the next great MLB pitcher and entice a turnout through a talent show-esque competition. He pitches it to a backer and gets funded for his ‘Million Dollar Arm’ program, however he must be ready to show off his prospects in just one year. JB heads to India and begins to scout and while at first his idea seems to be sinking instead of swimming, he finds hope in two natural talents (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal), who return with JB to the United States to begin their training with USC Trojans head coach, Tom House (Bill Paxton). As JB tries to not only oversee the evolving results of his own project but meet more potential clients to help keep his business afloat, his lack of faith and support in one place leads to distancing with not only the two young boys, but with his tenant, Brenda (Lake Bell), whom JB has taken an unexpected liking toward.
From the plot description you can see where this is all going. It’s so pleasantly by the books that Million Dollar Arm gets no room to make its mark. It’s content with being mostly fine…but that’s less of a problem than it is an expected issue. It’s a Disney film that’s rated PG. There isn’t going to be any tough psychological drama or substance abuse issues or dark character attributes. There’s nothing tough about this film; Million Dollar Arm is accessible and digestible for all ages, and the broad appeal is surely a producer mandate. Still, it’s wonderfully charming and swells with sweet and amusing moments that make it all the better.
Tom McCarthy is a very talented writer and director. He’s the scribe behind Win Win, The Visitor, and The Station Agent – all of which he directed as well – and he’s worked with tons of writer/directors like Stephen Gaghan and Tony Gilroy, not to mention a supporting acting role in the fifth season of HBO’s The Wire. I love McCarthy’s work as a filmmaker and as an actor and I’m impressed that Disney tapped him to write this standard kind of film. I’d be surprised if McCarthy ever had any intention of directing Million Dollar Arm himself due to its rudimentary feel and constrained parameters, but his sharp humor and easy-going dialogue is felt and heard throughout. As a filmmaker, McCarthy is very intimate and his direction style anchors his melancholic tones, but with Craig Gillespie in the director’s chair here, McCarthy’s prose aren’t given close to the same kind of treatment. Granted, Million Dollar Arm is going for a familial feel which none of McCarthy’s solo outings are looking to attract; still Gillespie (of Lars and the Real Girl and Fright Night) isn’t as up for the challenge of moderating his directorial personality. His direction is fine, minus the frustrating handheld camera, but it stands as purely serviceable. No flicks or flairs, a squarely auto-piloted production, but he allows McCarthy’s script to bounce about with humor and heart, and he does mine strong performances from the central and more peripheral characters.
Jon Hamm is long overdue for a strong starring role in a motion picture. He’ll always have Mad Men, but The Town disserviced him with a boring character and while he slayed it in Bridesmaids, he was granted a total of three scenes. Thankfully, the best part of Million Dollar Arm is Jon Hamm, and not because of his obvious talents as a performer, but because Hamm’s given a character worthy of his strengths. While JB is the Disney-fied version of a Don Draper combined with his Bridesmaids character, we still have a really hard time rooting for him until Arm reaches its third act. JB is very selfish, and he’s good at distancing himself from others and vanquishing any internal emotion. For much of the second act, he borders on despicable, and this is the only time we see Million Dollar Arm trying to rise above its inherent formula. Hamm gives a really great performance, and of course he can do so much more as we know from his devious doings on Mad Men, but in a Disney sports film, he nails every moment of tension, every served up punchline, and each sentimental pause. Million Dollar Arm wouldn’t work without Hamm.
The rest of the cast is strong too, and McCarthy doesn’t let any character be an empty body, which is great when veterans like Alan Arkin and Bill Paxton are popping up in what would normally be thankless roles. Most notable is Lake Bell. The fabulous character actress is starting to make waves (she directed and starred in the indie hit, In a World… a little while back) and here she’s a beauty with obvious chemistry opposite Hamm. Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal fill the shoes of eventual Pittsburgh Pirates migrates Rinku and Dinesh amply. None of their ‘fish out of water’ hijinks are overdone and their moments of discourage and of success are felt and well-played. For all of Million Dollar Arm’s obvious tropes, it’s this cast that keeps you involved, coupled with McCarthy’s writing that makes you do something even more important: Care.
There are zero surprises, but Million Dollar Arm doesn’t want to surprise, it wants to entertain and warm you and your family’s hearts. It meets its quota of emotional beats, and it makes you smile when things go right for the characters, and you ‘boo’ when Jon Hamm’s JB is stubborn and uncaring. The central arc, for both the narrative and the character, is clear (and calculated) but it works, and is cheerful enough to disparage any strong distaste. It’s simple and sweet. It’s not a grand slam, nor is it a home run, but it’s a shiny trip to the ball game in the early summer; a day excursion that the entire family can, and will, enjoy.
Review by Mike Murphy