Movie review: Baseball players from India get a shot in 'Million Dollar Arm'

For the News-DemocratMay 15, 2014 

What It's About:

Pairing a true underdog baseball story with St. Louis favorite son Jon Hamm yields a winning combo in "Million Dollar Arm."

Hamm plays brash, self-absorbed sports agent J.B. Bernstein who makes a risky move when his career is on the line. He schemes to find the next hotshot MLB pitcher through a heavily promoted contest in India.

However, plucking Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) from their remote villages and demanding impossible results, especially when the transition is understandably rough, leads to conflicts.

The polite and earnest young men's story is remarkable. Because they're innocents in an alluring big-city playground, not all is hunky dory in La-La Land.

Bernstein comes across as an insensitive jerk, and he must learn the error of his ways. Medical student Brenda (Lake Bell), USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) and crotchety scout Ray (Alan Arkin) provide the voices of reason.

The players get their shot. I won't spoil it for those who don't know the outcome.

Performances

The cast features all likable actors who display ample charm, and keep us engaged. Handsome Hamm has enormous screen presence, and isn't afraid to play a darker side.

Yet, they have done more substantial work in their repertoire -- Hamm, of course, as the indelible Don Draper in "Mad Men," Bell in "In a World," Sharma in "Life of Pi," Mittal in "Slumdog Millionaire," Oscar winner Arkin in "Little Miss Sunshine" and Paxton in "Frailty."

In fine support, Aasif Mandvi excels as Bernstein's partner Ash, rooted in reality but motivational, too. And the Bollywood actor Pitobash stands out, genuinely funny as translator Amit, who winds up a good buffer between the sweet young guys and the impatient Bernstein.

What Works

Writer-actor Thomas McCarthy, whose superb original screenplays for "Win Win" and "The Visitor" demonstrate he knows how to craft a story with a good dose of heart. He has stitched together a feel-good crowdpleaser, even if it's not particularly original or devoid of sports movie cliches.

The authentic details keep the story grounded, but director Craig Gillespie definitely keeps to a typical Disney formula.

A.R. Rahman, the Oscar-winning composer to "Slumdog Millionaire," again provides a stirring musical score.

What Doesn't Work:

The focus is more on the overbearing American rather than the athletes. The more interesting angle -- and maybe less conventional -- would have been if they delved deeper into the viewpoint of the young Indians.

The fish-out-of-water aspect provides the human elements, and you want everyone to come out of the struggle better people.

3 stars out of 4

Director: Craig Gillespie

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

Rated: PG for mild language and some suggestive content

Length: 2:00

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