May 16, 2014

Million Dollar Arm

Snapshot of the target audience for
"Million Dollar Arm"

Grade: B –
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Jon Hamm, Pitobash, Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin and Bill Paxton
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr. 4 min.

For a moment, imagine the families of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, real-life young men plucked from obscurity in their native India to travel to America and try to become Major League Baseball pitchers, settling in to watch Million Dollar Arm, the Disney-produced film about the boys’ improbable stories. Then imagine their reactions they instead see a film about the love life and obstacles facing their white benefactor, sports agent J.P. Bernstein (Jon Hamm).

The irony is that a film about the globalization of sport is skewed so obviously toward a particular ethnic audience. It’s patronizing, and it’s Hollywood. But, despite these deep, endemic faults, it’s also a formula picture that manages to contort itself at times into a charming, even earnest tale.

Low on clients and high on expenses with his business partner (played by Aasif Mandvi, because it's a movie with Indian characters), Bernstein toggles his large-screen TV channels one night between an Indian cricket match and Sarah Boyle’s performance on “Britain’s Got Talent” [despite the fact that Boyle’s 2009 TV appearance postdates the real-life events depicted in this film by two years].  This eureka moment becomes the titular reality show contest, where Bernstein and his company would trawl the streets of Mumbai in hopes of signing MLB’s first Indian player.

After a long, frustrating search, the contest is won by Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), poor villagers who fly to America and proceed to express wonderment over everything from pizza to elevators (because, you see, they must not have elevators in India). As Rinku and Dinesh attempt to cope with homesickness and their new training regime with Southern Cal coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), Bernstein neglects his new de facto wards while he tries to regain his jetsetting sports agent lifestyle.

Bernstein soon figures out what’s Really Important In Life™ with the help of Brenda (Lake Bell), his non-model renter who Bernstein discovers is actually pretty groovy and cute. Meanwhile, Rinku, Dinesh and Amit (Pitobash), Bernstein’s imported Indian interpreter/manservant, are reduced to fish-out-of-water archetypes. Still, director Craig Gillespie and usually reliable writer Tom McCarthy manage to inject some humanity amid the studio-imposed narrative strictures. They don’t shy away from casting Bernstein as a self-centered jerk, perhaps as penance for Hamm’s extreme screentime. And, the final figures of courage and uplift are Rinku and Dinesh … with a lot of help from J.B. and friends.

But, what Million Dollar Arm ultimately—and somewhat inadvertently—speaks to is the demystification of modern sports. Bernstein is a cynical, struggling money-peddler is a world of entitled athletes, greedy executives and commercially compromised media. In India, Bernstein supposedly gets his groove back. Nevermind the glitzy commercial, neocolonial endeavor he employs for this purpose, where participants are lured by the promise of a million dollars in cold cash. And nevermind that Bernstein’s financial motivation is not just personal, but also the chance to mine over a billion untapped consumers. Million Dollar Arm casts an eye abroad to rediscover the purity of sport. In actuality, it discovers that greed knows no boundaries.

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