“Jerry Maguire Goes to India” or “Slumdog Fireballer” must have been the high-concept pitch for baseball drama “Million Dollar Arm,” but the highly enjoyable result isn’t nearly as opportunistic as it sounds — even if it is, in part, a portrait of a shameless opportunist. Drawn from the real-life efforts of sports agent JB Bernstein to turn Indian cricket bowlers into Major League Baseball pitchers, this sharp, slickly produced addition to the Disney sports movie canon works as both a stirring underdog tale and as a revealing look at the expanding global footprint of the American sports-entertainment machine. Deftly counterprogrammed against pre-summer tentpoles “Godzilla” and “X-Men,” the pic stands to hit somewhere in the $60 million ballpark of the studio’s previous “Miracle” and “Invincible.”
Those two movies also repped the handiwork of “Million Dollar Arm” producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, who by now know their way around this sort of movie as surely as Jerry Bruckheimer does a guns-blazing action spectacular. But much credit is also due here to director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and screenwriter Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”), who put across the movie’s many cliches with a certain verve, and find room for unexpected detours and grace notes in an overall familiar trajectory.
It’s not just any movie, after all, that can make you feel warmly toward a vain, fast-talking sports agent who’s started to believe his own help-me-help-you hustle. But “Million Dollar Arm” largely pulls off the trick, perhaps because said agent is played by Jon Hamm, who possesses a special talent for ferreting out the humanity in seemingly soulless corporate suits. Even then, there’s surely a fair amount of dramatic license at work in the movie’s depiction of Bernstein as a former high-flyer at a big-time agency (where his clients included Barry Sanders and Emmett Smith) turned scrappy independent struggling alongside his partner (Aasif Mandvi) to hold together their fledgling operation. It’s not just the ballplayers who are meant to be the underdogs in “Million Dollar Arm,” but their representatives, too, which might have been a bit much to take had the filmmakers not wisely opted to leave Bernstein with a few character flaws the size of Wrigley Field.
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The importing of foreign-born sports stars to play for U.S. teams (aka “sports capitalism”) has become big business in the era of the NBA’s Chinese-born superstar Yao Ming and MLB’s Japanese-born Ichiro Suzuki and Masahiro Tanaka. But like a prospector who’s showed up late to the gold rush, the Bernstein we first meet in “Million Dollar Arm” bemoans the lack of any remaining fertile ground for such discoveries — Europe has been thoroughly canvassed, East Asia has run dry. His eureka moment comes while flipping channels between a televised cricket match and singer Susan Boyle’s now-famous audition for “Britain’s Got Talent.” In the mashup, an idea is born, and with the backing of a Chinese-American entrepreneur (Tzi Ma), Bernstein sets off to India to launch a reality TV competition designed to unearth the best baseball players on the subcontinent.
This proves easier said than done, as Bernstein traipses from Jaipur to Calcutta to Bangalore in the company of an enthusiastic volunteer assistant/translator (popular Bollywood comic Pitobash) and a narcoleptic retired baseball scout (a delightfully craggy Alan Arkin) whose finely tuned ears tell him all he needs to know — that none of these cricket-bowling lads can throw a baseball anywhere near major-league speed and accuracy. Until, of course, a couple of promising prospects do emerge, in the form of 18-year-olds Rinku Singh (“Life of Pi” star Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal, who played the wayward older brother in “Slumdog Millionaire”).
If the plotting is undeniably predictable, the India scenes nevertheless give “Million Dollar Arm” a hearty dose of visual and narrative energy. As far as the film’s saturated color palette is concerned, as well as its jubilant wall-to-wall song score by Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, Gillespie certainly takes his cues from “Slumdog” director Danny Boyle (who was himself filtering Bollywood through an Anglo prism). The country itself is depicted in largely the same chaotic, exoticized terms that have become de rigueur in Western-made movies: endless snarls of traffic, stomach-upsetting cuisine, poor sanitary conditions, and those unflappable locals who throw their hands in the air and say things like, “Here in India, we do things a little differently.” But even at its broadest, the movie is careful to afford its Indian characters a certain fundamental dignity — and, in another intelligent move, allows them to deliver much of their dialogue in their native Hindi.
Singh and Patel’s ultimate fates won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who follows baseball — or who’s seen a baseball movie before — but “Million Dollar Arm” is arguably more about the journey than the final destination, and it takes us on one that is surprisingly smart about the business of sports and the business of being human. When Bernstein returns to L.A. with his two prize catches in tow, the movie plays down the obvious fish-out-of-water humor in favor of a genuine sense of the loneliness and disorientation these rural boys feel upon arriving in a big American city. At the same time, Bernstein finds his own pronounced desire for a Disneyfied happy ending pitted against the tougher realities of inventing two overnight sensations from whole cloth. So glimmers of selflessness begin to stir in the agent’s self-absorbed soul, without quite sending the movie into that foul territory of mawkish sentimentality.
Sometimes a hard-hitting expose, sometimes a big-hearted crowdpleaser, “Million Dollar Arm” wants it both ways to be sure, but its instincts are mostly right on the money, as are its actors. Sharma, in particular, has matured both physically and emotionally since his striking debut, leaving no doubt about his natural movie-star charisma. One of the great utility players in American movies, Bill Paxton shines as ex-Atlanta Brave turned USC pitching coach Tom House (the Mr. Miyagi of the piece). And Lake Bell has a nice flinty, no-nonsense edge as the med student who might just be the cure for Bernstein’s serial womanizing ways.
Hungarian-born d.p. Gyula Pados’ ace widescreen lensing (shot on a mix of film and digital stocks) leads off a top-tier tech package.