Although it’s obviously best known for its beloved animated fare, Disney occasionally bestows upon us a live-action film. They’re usually relatively formulaic, but crowd-pleasing and feel-good, appealing to as wide a range of audiences as possible. The studio’s latest film, Million Dollar Arm, fits that exact mould to a tee.
Based on a true story, the film follows J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a baseball agent who finds his business under threat when the bigger players in the industry keep stealing away clients. Doing his best to keep the business afloat, he starts looking at possible untapped markets to find potential new players. One day he has a flash of genius: he will travel to India to search through the players of that country’s most popular sport, cricket, for up-and-coming stars. He sets up the competition Million Dollar Arm, offering two young hopefuls the chance to travel to America and hit the baseball big time.
Million Dollar Arm is almost like a perfect blueprint of how safe and straightforward a film can be, sticking to the typical screenplay formula throughout, without really wavering and falling into clichéd traps and pitfalls of both the sports drama and the against-all-odds inspirational tale so often stamped with the “based on a true story” label. There’s none of the oddness found in director Craig Gillespie’s indie hit Lars And The Real Girl, for instance. However, there’s an undeniable, feel-good, optimistic, wide-eyed charm to it that makes it eminently watchable and pleasingly undemanding.
Described in the advertisement as “Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s a film that marries the atmosphere of that most American of pastimes – baseball – with the world of Indian cricket. In doing so we get this culture clash as J.B. travels from his relatively quiet life in L.A. for the hustle-bustle of India. Everything is painted in broad strokes, even down to its portrayal of the cultural of one of the world’s most populated countries.
A sharper edged movie might have delivered a probing satire of self-absorbed Western consumerism, but – in what feels like an entirely purposeful aim by screenwriter Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) – the rough edges have been smoothed off to make accessible to the widest possible audience. It therefore comes off as charmingly innocent, rather than outwardly offensive, when it comes to the rather simplistic and stereotypical portrayal of small town and big city India alike.
Much of why it functions so well in spite of its predictability and straight-talking simplicity is its easy-going nature and charm, mainly in the form of leading man Jon Hamm. Best known for playing genius ad man Don Draper in TV’s Mad Men, Hamm brings the same sort of effortless charisma and likeability to the role of struggling yet determined sports agent J.B. – who’s like a cross between Tom Cruise in the aforementioned Jerry Maguire and Brad Pitt in Moneyball – conjuring a lot of empathy and surprising depth to a potentially trite and unmemorable character.
The film has a pleasing mix of inspirational drama and warm character-based comedy. In one of the film’s strongest sections, there’s some very funny culture-clash stuff involving J.B. bringing the winners of the titular competition, two talented but underprivileged young men who’ve barely left the village in which they grew up, back to his lavish L.A. home. They’re played by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, who most will know from Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, respectfully, and they’re immediately likeable and easy to root for as they try their best to take advantage of an enormous opportunity.
The comedy is sometimes a little too on-the-nose for its own good, namely when it comes to the character of Amit (Pitobash), the plucky and energetic Indiana gofer/wannabe agent who’s the equivalent of a cartoon sidekick clambering for attention. There’s also Alan Arkin, who sporadically appears as as a legendary sports scout now more content to lounge around than do any actual work, allowing for many-a-scene of Hamm and Co. complaining to him about his lack of contribution. Nevertheless, it never steps over the line into annoying, and always has that good-hearted nature to fall back on.
You’re not going to come away from Million Dollar Arm feeling like you’ve seen the reinvention of cinema or even anything particularly new in the sports drama sub-genre. It’s decisively by-the-numbers filmmaking, ticking just about every box you can think of with this type of film, from its against the odds journey right to its love interest subplot (here played by Lake Bell) to its ending that’s predictable – even if you don’t know the true story on which it’s based. But the film achieves what it sets out to do: that is, to inspire you, charm you, warm your heart and put a smile on your face. And do you know what? Sometimes that’s just the ticket.
This review was previously published on Scotcampus.