You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Million Dollar Arm’

The increasingly globalized footprint of the American sports-entertainment machine gets a smart, entertaining closeup in a worthy addition to the Disney sports movie canon.

Jon Hamm, Pitobash, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Aasif Mandvi, Darshan Jariwala, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Greg Alan Williams, Allyn Rachel, Tzi Ma. (English, Hindi dialogue.)

“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.

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.

Film Review: 'Million Dollar Arm'

Reviewed at Park Ave. screening room, New York, April 17, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 123 MIN.

Production: A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release and presentation of a Roth Films/Mayhem Pictures production. Produced by Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray, Joe Roth. Executive producers, Palek Patel, Kevin Halloran, Bill Simmons, Connor Schell. Co-producers, Neil Mandt, Michael Mandt, Tabrez Noorani.

Crew: Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay, Tom McCarthy. Camera (color, Deluxe prints, widescreen, 35mm/Arri Alexa HD), Gyula Pados; editor, Tatiana S. Riegel; music, A.R. Rahman; music supervisor, Jon Mooney; production designer, Barry Robison; supervising art director, Mark Robins; art director, Jeremy Woolsey; set decorator, Jeanette Scott; set designer, Jayme Long; costume designer, Kirston Leigh Mann; sound (Dolby Digital), Jose Antonio Garcia; supervising sound editor, Mark P. Stoeckinger; re-recording mixers, Andy Koyama, Beau Borders; visual effects supervisor, Bryan Godwin; visual effects, Shade VFX, Clearcut FX, Stargate Studios, Eight VFX; associate producer, Pravesh Sahni; assistant director, Mike Topoozian; second unit camera, Paula Huidobro; casting, Sheila Jaffe; Indian casting, Seher Latif.

With: Jon Hamm, Pitobash, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Aasif Mandvi, Darshan Jariwala, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Greg Alan Williams, Allyn Rachel, Tzi Ma. (English, Hindi dialogue.)

More Film

  • 'The Pledge' Review

    Film Review: 'Pledge'

    “Privilege comes with sacrifice” says one character to another in “Pledge” — exactly the kind of noble sentiment authority figures always voice to hush the protests of those about to be sacrificed. This third feature for director Daniel Robbins is no delicate flower of cinematic art, but a lean and mean shocker that tells its [...]

  • John Lithgow

    John Lithgow-Blythe Danner's 'Tomorrow Man' Bought Ahead of Sundance Premiere

    In one of the first deals for the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, Bleecker Street has acquired North American rights to the John Lithgow-Blythe Danner romance “The Tomorrow Man.” The movie will hold its world premiere at the fest, which opens on Jan. 24 in Park City, Utah. The distributor is planning a May 17 release. [...]

  • Dragon Ball Super Broly

    'Dragon Ball Super: Broly' Scores Big First Day With $7 Million

    Funimation Films’ Japanese anime movie “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” has opened impressively with a dominant first-day total of $7 million at 1,260 North American locations on Wednesday. The English-language version of “Dragon Ball Super: Broly,” which screened at 180 Imax and Cinemark XD premium large format screens, generated by far the best per-screen average among [...]

  • Shoplifters Cannes

    Box Office: 'Shoplifters' Hits $2 Million to Become One of 2018's Highest-Grossing Foreign Films

    Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” has become an unexpected box office success. The Japanese drama about a petty thief who adopts a young girl has earned critical raves and picked up the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. That translated into commercial success for Magnolia, the indie distributor that’s been overseeing the film’s rollout. “Shoplifters” [...]

  • C'est La Vie TIFF

    French Films' Overseas Box Office Revenue Drops 51% in 2018

    After bouncing back in 2017, the overseas box office revenue of French movies plummeted by 51% to 237 million euros ($270 million) with 40 million admissions sold, a 52% year-on drop, in 2018. The provisional box office figures were unveiled by UniFrance during a reception hosted at France’s culture minister during which Eric Toledano and [...]

  • Isabela Moner Shameik Moore Kiernan Shipka

    Netflix Casts Starry Ensemble for Adaptation of John Green's 'Let It Snow'

    “Dora the Explorer’s” Isabela Moner, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s” Shameik Moore, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s” Kiernan Shipka, “Lady Bird’s” Odeya Rush, Jacob Batalon, Miles Robbins, Mitchell Hope, Liv Hewson, Anna Akana, and Joan Cusack are set to star in the Netflix pic “Let It Snow.” The film is based on the New York Times bestselling [...]

  • Brian Tyree Henry Playback Podcast If

    Listen: From 'Beale Street' to 'Spider-Verse,' Brian Tyree Henry Was Your 2018 MVP

    Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor Brian Tyree Henry is coming off a sensational year. A second, acclaimed season of FX’s “Atlanta” sent him headlong into a fall movie season that saw featured roles in Yann [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content