Starring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton
Directed by: Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”)
Written by: Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”)
More than any other major North American sports league, Major League Baseball has truly gone international. Last season, more than a quarter of the league’s players on opening day rosters were born outside of the United States, representing 15 countries. As the game continues to expand, areas of the world once considered a new baseball frontier like the Dominican Republic are a fixture of any scout’s itinerary. Just as “Moneyball” showed the competitive edge that can be gained from tapping into a market inefficiency, “Million Dollar Arm” shows how creative strategies and unconventional thinking can continue to mine talent from unexpected places.
As a last ditch effort to save his sports agency, agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) comes up with a reality TV show idea with the intent of converting cricket players to major league pitchers. When the two players from India are selected (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma) they embark on an unlikely journey to earn a professional contract.
From early on in the film, it is clear the cast is one of the strong points of the film. Despite playing the lead on a massively popular TV show (“Mad Men”), this is one of the first leading film roles for Hamm. It’s a good performance, albeit one that doesn’t require much other than occupying a lot of screen time, which he does quite capably. Nonetheless, he is charismatic enough to make his role worthwhile. As actors with little recognition to American audiences, Mittal and Sharma, are able to capture elements of culture shock without overdoing it.
With such a brilliant past output, it makes sense that Disney would hire such a talented screenwriter in Thomas McCarthy. Unfortunately, McCarthy’s writing is stifled and slightly generic. That isn’t to say it is bad, but it does go through the motions and hits every expected narrative and emotional arc you’d expect from a Disney movie, which makes it more of a by-the-numbers sports film than something truly special.
Though there isn’t a terrible amount of it, director Craig Gillespie does a good job of building a convincing world of baseball and constructing the pitching montages and an even better job of photographing the streets of India. By the sometimes desolate and cramped living spaces, Gillespie does a great job of showing the cultural differences that go both ways.
At its core, “Million Dollar Arm,” like many other underdog sports films, is about pursuing a dream against all odds. As a film, it doesn’t do any one thing particularly well, but rather a decent job at several things. While many of the notes are certainly familiar, none of them are false and the film does a solid job of developing emotional investment. It’s far too long and there is nothing particularly unique or imaginative about it, but for a family sports movie, you could do a lot worse.