- - Thursday, May 15, 2014

For a sports movie with no real action, “Million Dollar Arm” manages to be captivating, in a cornball kind of way. Not that sentimentality is a drawback in a baseball movie.

The baseball movie genre relies on sentiment to connect the viewer with the deeply held and largely outdated mythologies about the game itself, its grass-scented, analog sweetness and deliberate pace. In this context, a movie like “Moneyball,” which focused on the higher mathematics of fielding a baseball team, is an exception rather than the rule.

Movies like “The Rookie,” “Trouble With the Curve,” and now “Million Dollar Arm” celebrate gut instinct, impossible dreams, and are unapologetically mawkish about baseball’s appeal to its diehard fans.

In a way, “Million Dollar Arm” is a globalized version of “The Rookie,” and maybe it’s no accident that both are Disney films based closely on true stories. Where “The Rookie” celebrated an aged pitcher taking a final shot at a baseball career, “Million Dollar Arm” looks at two young Indians who have never heard of the game taking advantage of a rare opportunity to have athletic success on a big stage.

The movie follows sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), whose attempt to launch a solo career away from a big firm is faltering. As a last-ditch effort, he comes up with the idea of holding a reality show-type contest in India to recruit cricket bowlers to become major league pitchers.

With the help of his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi), he’s able to secure funding for the project and travels to India with a baseball scout named Ray (Alan Arkin) to see if they can find a couple of arms worthy of pro tryouts, and perhaps induce some of India’s massive sports fan base to take up a rooting interest in baseball.

JB finds that his drab, intense work style doesn’t mesh with the way business is done in India. His spiritual awakening on a personal and professional level is laid on a bit thick in the script. He goes from dating only model types to taking up with a medical student who rents an outbuilding on his property.

He is moved here and there by the sights and sounds and smells of India, the interconnectedness of village life, and the obligation he assumes by taking two young men to America to pursue a career in a sport they hardly know.

To his credit, Mr. Hamm doesn’t strain this aspect of the movie in his performance.

After a media tour that takes JB and his entourage across India, they uncover a pair of prospects, Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhu Mittal), who show sufficient raw talent to be considered for pro baseball. When they come back to the U.S. to complete their training under the watchful eye of former Major League pitcher and colleague Tom House (Bill Paxton), the culture shock and limitations of their abilities threaten to derail their new dreams.

In real life, the prospects who have passed through the Million Dollar Arm program haven’t done so well in organized baseball. But the movie effectively elides this reality by focusing more on how far Rinku and Dinesh have to come merely to be considered as potential minor leaguers.

While Rinku and Dinesh only show off their throwing arms in tryout-type situations, never in games, there is still considerable excitement, if not actual suspense, around their performance.

While “Million Dollar Arm” might not appeal broadly to film audiences, baseball fans who see a special kind of magic in the sport will warm to its generous spirit and celebration of the national pastime.

 

TITLE: “Million Dollar Arm”

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