'Million Dollar Arm' winds up as much more than a baseball movie
May 16, 2014 12:00 AM
Jon Hamm in "Million Dollar Arm."
Jon Hamm stars as sports agent J.B. Bernstein in “Million Dollar Arm.”
By Barbara Vancheri / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Watching TV late one night and switching back and forth between cricket and surprising songbird Susan Boyle on “Britain’s Got Talent,” J.B. Bernstein dreamed a little dream himself.
What if the sports agent could find a hard-throwing cricket bowler in India and turn him into a baseball pitcher? And then bring him to America to train and sign with a professional team, expanding the base of global fans of the sport by, oh, a billion people courtesy of the population of India?
Starring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal.
Rating: PG for mild language and some suggestive content.
That was the baseball brainstorm of Mr. Bernstein, whose story is told in the feel-good comedy “Million Dollar Arm.”
Jon Hamm leaves the increasingly angsty 1960s of “Mad Men” behind to play Mr. Bernstein, a Los Angeles bachelor who pitches his idea to his business partner, Aash (Aasif Mandvi). After all, he reasons, look at how Yao Ming helped basketball gain a foothold in China and beyond.
A throwing guru and coach, Tom House (Bill Paxton), concedes that J.B.’s plan is not impossible, just “highly improbable.”
J.B., more marketing specialist than salary negotiator, heads for India to produce a reality TV competition called “The Million Dollar Arm” and discovers that early advice to be patient applies to everything, including the search for someone who can bring the heat in the sometimes stifling heat.
But locating pitching prospects Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi”) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal, “Slumdog Millionaire”) who can make a grumpy scout (Alan Arkin) sit up and take notice is just the beginning.
They are not just underdogs but that other movie favorite — fish out of water in America. Their lives are transformed but so, too, is J.B. Bernstein’s, played by Mr. Hamm with just the right amount of doggedness, confidence, self-centeredness and eventual recognition about what matters in life.
“Million Dollar Arm” is an inspirational, enjoyable, old-fashioned family film that’s rated PG and even has a Pittsburgh connection. Moviegoers should be aware that a small amount of dialogue is in Hindi with English subtitles across the bottom of the screen.
The Indians, including single-name Pitobash as J.B.’s eager right-hand man, are true innocents abroad, amazed at such modern miracles as pizza delivery guys and elevators, which didn’t exist in their small farming villages. You cannot help but root for them to succeed on any level given the magnitude of the gamble they take, how hard they work and how far they are from home.
Director Craig Gillespie and writer Tom McCarthy took some liberties in bringing the tale to the big screen. Mr. Bernstein’s sports agency wasn’t going under, as in the movie, and J.B.’s neighbor, Brenda (Lake Bell), had a different job in real life, for starters.
However, “Million Dollar Arm” seems to be the rare movie deserving its “based on a true story” label. As always, there is more to the Cinderella story than 124 minutes will allow, and sometimes the slipper fits for just a while, although wearing it can be transformative.
If you have any doubts, sit through the closing credits (you will want to see the photos anyway) or track down the book of the same name in which Mr. Bernstein concludes, “Looking in unexpected places for the extraordinary expanded my field of vision and changed how I saw the world.
“In the end, the whole enterprise wasn’t so much about finding the best pitchers. It was about giving people a chance to surpass what is expected of them and what they expect of themselves to achieve much, much more.”
That is a lesson that stretches beyond the boundaries of the baseball diamond or the cricket field.
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