There’s little doubt that baseball has a larger foreign audience today than ever before. But is that expanding global footprint motivated by money or goodwill?
That’s a question that isn’t answered by Million Dollar Arm, which chronicles the story of the first two Indian baseball players to be signed to professional contracts in the United States. It’s a compelling true-life story that’s so insistent on crowd-pleasing embellishments that it misses an opportunity to provide significant context about its subjects. The film follows J.B. (Jon Hamm), a fledgling sports agent whose company is struggling to lure major clients. Out of desperation, he makes a last-ditch effort to reach the overseas market by devising a reality-television concept, aimed at finding baseball pitchers in cricket-rich India with cash and a pro tryout as its prizes. It’s a clever idea that results in Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittai) flying to Los Angeles to train with eccentric former Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). But as difficult as it is for them to learn the game, dealing with homesickness is a bigger obstacle.
The film seems oblivious to the fact that it’s difficult to sympathize with a greedy sports agent, whose rags-to-riches story involves the threat of losing his seven-figure house and six-figure car. Yes, he undergoes a humbling transformation that allows him to put his priorities in order before the obligatory uplifting finale, but wouldn’t the same tale be more fascinating if told from the perspective of the two youngsters? Perhaps their cultural background doesn’t lend itself as well to domestic box-office success.
At any rate, director Craig Gillespie (Fright Night) and normally reliable screenwriter Tom McCarthy (The Visitor) are content to trot out formulaic culture-clash gags. The script lacks subtlety and tries to manipulate the story into an oversimplified and over-sanitized framework, sacrificing some authenticity in the process. However, Hamm (TV’s “Mad Men”) makes an appealing transition to big-screen leading man, and Alan Arkin supplies some amusing comic relief as a curmudgeonly scout. Lake Bell (In a World) also is a bright spot as the renter of J.B.’s guesthouse. Perhaps the film will wind up mirroring its source material, with the producers getting rich and Hamm gaining Hollywood clout while the charming Indian contributors — including Sharma (Life of Pi) — fade back into obscurity.
Million Dollar Arm has trouble finding the strike zone, and in the baseball-movie canon, is likely to be relegated to the bullpen.