Thursday, May 15, 2014

Baseball Millionaire: Formulaic "Million Dollar Arm" should win you over

Million Dollar Arm (2014)
124 min., rated PG.

As with "Remember the Titans," "The Rookie," "Miracle," "Glory Road" and "Invincible," slickly scrubbed, inspirational feel-good Disney sports movie "Million Dollar Arm" is "based on a true story." In spite of those five dreaded words, this is a largely formulaic but non-cynical and perfectly fine crowd-pleaser that nonetheless wins one over like a box of cuddly newborn kittens. Even when the film seems to have been prefabricated from a movie playbook, covering all of the bases and uplifting emotional cues of the underdog and fish-out-of-water formulas, director Craig Gillespie (2007's offbeat, lighthearted Ryan-Gosling-in-love-with-a-lifesize-doll romance "Lars and the Real Girl" and the reasonably good 2011 "Fright Night" remake) knows how to bring out the heart and humor in the 2009 story of the first Indian athletes to be signed to a major-league baseball team. The cinematic equivalent of a warm electric blanket, "Million Dollar Arm" pleasantly does the trick as nice and safe family fare.

Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a smooth, womanizing L.A. sports agent who's just lost his next big client for his small business. One night while flipping through TV channels, he comes across an Indian cricket match and an episode of "Britain's Got Talent," where frumpy underdog contestant Susan Boyle blows away the judges with her powerful pipes. Like a lightbulb going on in his head, J.B. plans to fly to India, which has an untapped athletic market, and stage a contest dubbed the "Million Dollar Arm." He will have to find two cricket bowlers who have the right stuff to be signed to the MLB and then bring the finalists to the U.S. to show them off to the ball clubs. First, he finds eager baseball fanatic Amit Rohan (Pitobash), who's willing to be J.B.'s helper and translator for free. Then J.B. discovers his two potential pitchers: teenage javelin thrower Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and laborer Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), both of whom have a strong pitcher's arm but no experience playing baseball or cricket. Somehow, in six months, J.B. will have to convert Rinku and Dinesh into hot commodities, as there's a lot riding on their success, and of course, he does.

Director Gillespie and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy (2011's "Win Win") make the odd choice of focusing on the older, white sports agent first and the younger, dark contestants second when it really have should been the other way around. Heck, J.B. is even rewarded a love interest in Brenda (Lake Bell), his quirky, messy tenant who's studying to be a doctor. A workaholic, a narcissist and an unreasonable jerk at times, J.B. simply isn't a very likable figure at first before his grinchy heart moves up in size, but the appealingly handsome Jon Hamm (TV's "Mad Men") is an ideal match for the role. He sweats charisma and can so effectively play a suit-wearing, opportunistic business type (although he's not smoking herbal cigarettes in any offices). As soon as Brenda asks to use J.B.'s washing machine because she broke hers, it's a done deal that the two of them will be smooching lovebirds by the end. If anyone has to make something out of the obligatory love-interest role, though, it might as well be Lake Bell, who brings intelligence and down-to-earth personality to Brenda. 

The film doesn't fully keep Rinku and Dinesh in the dugout or treat them strictly as cute props or business investments. Naturally, on their first night, these new-to-the-states kids aren't able to stay in a hotel by themselves without setting off the fire alarm or being in awe of the elevators, so J.B. takes them into his sterile bachelor pad. They will soon discover the American addictions to reality TV, pizza, and partying, while not forgetting their daily religious practices, even after they've left their respective families and villages. Diminutive Bollywood comedy star Pitobash deserves to be a smash in America, too, as he is adorably engaging with great delivery as the enthusiastic Amit. With few words, the earnest, sweetly wide-eyed Suraj Sharma ("Life of Pi") and Madhur Mittal ("Slumdog Millionaire") manage to charm, leaving the viewer to wish the script had been even more generous toward them.

As predictable as the underdogs rising above, "Million Dollar Arm" is but a light, satisfying entertainment that makes up for its unabashed patness and lack of surprises in its complete likability. It doesn't hurt to have such a dependable supporting cast, either. At this point, Alan Arkin can play the same kind of weary role with his eyes shut. Literally, his character that of ornery veteran scout Ray Poitevint sleeps through most of the scouting. Aasif Mandvi adds a complementary balance as J.B.'s hands-full-with-kids business partner Aash, and Bill Paxton also offers support as compassionate USC pitching coach Tom House. If the viewer has no idea how everything will shake out, this is probably his or her first movie, but if one isn't at least touched or amused by it, you have no soul.

Grade: B - 

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