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Million Dollar Arm Stands on Billion Dollar Legs

by Kevin J. Johnson

 

MILLION DOLLAR ARM is the Disney sports film based on a true story of an agent who recruits two young athletes from India in the hopes of turning them into Major League Baseball stars. It stars Jon Hamm, from AMC’s Mad Men, and is directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night [2011]). The picture is expertly cast, with Jon Hamm leading the ensemble with both magnetic charm and comic exasperation. Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) play Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, the two Indian athletes who get a shot at making the big leagues after winning a competition game show.

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This film is in the great longstanding tradition of Disney sports movies based on true stories, such as Miracle, Glory Road, Remember The Titans, Cool Runnings, you name it! Million Dollar Arm is not quite Mad Men meets Moneyball; it’s more like Cool Runnings meets Slumdog Millionaire, though I’d watch either of those mashups. The film isn’t as saccharine or maudlin as other Disney films for a younger audience. This is a true all ages film, a story that takes place in the real world and doesn’t speak down to kids, but is still discreetly sanitized in patented Disney-sports-film mode.

Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a former hotshot sports agent down on his luck and about to hit rock bottom when a prospect chooses another agency over his. His partner, Ash Vasudevan, played by The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi, leaves a cricket match on TV in J.B.’s house, from which the titular concept springs forth: find cricketer talent in the untapped market of India and turn them into baseball pros. Mandvi is affably funny in this role, and redeems himself after The Last Airbender (I can forgive, but I won’t forget).

Comic hijinks ensue as Bernstein acclimates to the way things are done in Mumbai, with an assist from baseball scout Ray Poitevint, played in classic curmudgeon fashion by Alan Arkin. Between this and Argo, Arkin has become something of a “clutch hitter” for films based on true stories. Rinku and Dinesh are humble student athletes, with Dinesh having given up his academic pursuits to take care of his father. Their scenes of familial village life in India are short but impactful, laying out the fundamental differences in perspective between the duo and Bernstein that both the comedy and drama emanate from.

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Bill Paxton plays real-life USC pitching coach Tom House, who is tasked with shaping Rinku and Dinesh into professional caliber players in one year. It’s strangely good to see Paxton in what has to be his gentlest role yet, especially after his fierce portrayal of Agent Garrett on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. USC fans will love the treatment the campus gets in this film.

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Lake Bell (Childrens Hospital, In a World….) completes this “grand slam” of a cast in playing Brenda Fenwick, J.B.’s tenant who rents his guesthouse. Bell is funny and multifaceted in the role, a welcome change of pace from The Lead Character’s Girlfriend. At least for her first few scenes, it feels like she’s coming from her own movie. Fenwick acts as a conscience to J.B., reminding him to treat the boys as human beings, not just his next big score.

My compliments go to Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) who wrote the script. He manages to balance sports tropes and behavioral nuance in the story, making each person believable and real, including the broader characters. Even the wannabe coach Amit, played by Pitobash Tripathy, gets a great scene with the burgeoning baseball players. And sure, you know what’s going to happen, either due to your prior knowledge of the actual events or the fact that it’s a Disney movie, but McCarthy and Gillespie make the experience an enjoyable one.

Million Dollar Arm features a lovely score from A.R. Rahman, who also composed for Slumdog Millionaire. Though it’s a bit heavy-handed at times, in classic Disney score fashion, Rahman crafts a touching soundscape for the melding of cultures in the film. He also collaborates with artists such as Iggy Azalea, KT Tunstall, Wale and Kendrick Lamar on the film’s soundtrack.

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Overall, I would say that Million Dollar Arm is a “pitch” perfect film for families to go see. It’s a very Disney sports movie, but in many of the best ways possible. Plus, it’s refreshing to see a film this good be unafraid of being PG. I remember when it was a big deal that 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean carried a PG-13 rating, something far too edgy for Disney Studios’ live-action fare at the time. Nowadays, families routinely go to films that have grown in intensity. Even the heartwarming Saving Mr. Banks was PG-13!

With young tykes cheering on Harry Potter wizard battles and DC/Marvel actionfests, this movie is a fun change of pace, eliciting a different type of cheer from the crowd. Kids will enjoy the travelogue portion of the film and the fish out of water comedy in both halves of the film. It’s light-hearted, life-affirming and I dare say it’s a (wait for it) home run.

Even though this won’t get an IMAX release, it still gets an IMAX rating (It’s just that good). I wholeheartedly recommend MIllion Dollar Arm for sports fans and the young at heart.

 

Rating: [IMAX/matinee/dollar-show/redbox/netflix/skip-it]

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