Million Dollar Arm’s depiction of India needs some work

May 11, 2014

Movie on Indian baseball pitchers gets details right.

By Deepak Chitnis

WASHINGTON, DC: Perhaps more than any other genre of film, sports movies are incredibly repetitive. Based on a true story or not, they all hit the same beats: a main character down on his or her luck, the chance of a lifetime to make it big if he or she can pass a rigorous test, insurmountable personal and financial odds, and ultimately victory. Although one movie every now and then breaks the mold – Jerry Maguire, Any Given Sunday, and Moneyball come to mind – it’s difficult to really make an unpredictable sports movie, so what distinguishes the successes from the failures lies in the details.

MillionDollarArmPosterMillion Dollar Arm gets the details right. Helped by an exotic Indian flavor, a satisfying (if not overly ambitious) script, and an incredibly winning lead performance, Disney’s new baseball film will satisfy sports junkies and casual moviegoers alike, not to mention the worldwide Indian diaspora, who will relish seeing their country in the Hollywood limelight.

After several successful years with a sports agency, J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) has started his own agency, but has yet to find success. After being introduced to cricket by his associate Aash (Aasif Mandvi), Bernstein gets an idea so ridiculous, it has to be brilliant: go to India and create a reality show called “Million Dollar Arm,” which tours the country’s biggest cities looking for a cricket player that can throw a Major League Baseball (MLB) pitch.

Teaming up with pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) and baseball scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin), the crew pick up an aspiring Indian baseball coach named Amit (Pitobash) and, after nearly three months of scouting, two potential Major League talents: Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Kumar Patel (Madhur Mittal).

But the pressures of winning the competition pale in comparison to preparing two village kids, who have never even touched a baseball, for tryouts in front of MLB teams in just about six months. As Bernstein struggles to juggle his contractual commitments, caring for the boys, and a potential relationship with his tenant (Lake Bell), the chances of the boys living up to their lofty expectations become increasingly dim.

Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) builds a palpable sense of drama, drawing a surprising amount of emotion as the film goes into its third act. Thomas McCarthy’s script is surprisingly funny, mixing the usual fish-out-of-water jokes (both with Americans in India and Indians in America) with character-based humor to make Bernstein and company identifiable and likeable.

The movie gets a huge assist from Jon Hamm, who is just flat-out awesome in the role of J.B. Bernstein. The character goes through a predictable arc of changing from a selfish jerk to a warm-hearted care-giver, but Hamm makes the character likeable even when he shouldn’t be. The performance is sincere and heartfelt, and is a big reason why Million Dollar Arm works as well as it does.

The same goes for Sharma (Life of Pi) and Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire). The actors spend most of the film speaking Hindi and consistently play second fiddle to Hamm, but are able to craft affecting performances without a whole lot of character development. We never learn much about the two young men – one has been forced into becoming a truck driver to make ends meet, and both live in squalor outside of Lucknow – but the actors help bring out what the script doesn’t provide them with.

Million Dollar ArmThe film has a few flaws, however. Despite a few curveballs (pun intended) thrown into the third act, the movie is largely predictable – a fault of the genre, as mentioned earlier. The movie also resorts to montage, a weak storytelling crutch, towards the end. Certain characters, particularly Arkin’s, pop up only when the story demands that they do, making them plot devices more than actual human beings. And A.R. Rahman’s score is mostly bland, with little differentiating it from his Slumdog Millionaire work (Million Dollar Arm even re-uses the “Ringa Ringa” song).

But most of all, the film’s depiction of India needs some work. Despite going to some of the country’s biggest cities, we’re only shown the absolute worst parts of India: ramshackle homes, dirt roads, and so on. The Taj Mahal is apparently still the only landmark India is identifiable with. And, like Slumdog Millionaire, the film has a weird obsession with showing little Indian children constantly running, as if they do nothing else (it also perpetuates some Hollywood stereotype that Indian people can only escape poverty by winning game shows, but that’s neither here nor there).

Still, as an entertainment, Million Dollar Arm is a crowd-pleaser, and will appeal to Indians and non-Indians, baseball fans and those who hate sports. By putting humor and character drama ahead of numbers and scores, the film connects more often than not, and ultimately will leave audience members with smiles on their faces. For a summer movie, that’s really all anyone can ask for.

Grade: B+

Million Dollar Arm

Release date: May 16, 2014

Director: Craig Gillespie

Starring:  Jon Hamm, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin, Lake Bell

Music: A.R. Rahman

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