The Disney tradition of the uplifting sports movie—pictures like “Miracle” and “Invincible”—is alive, if not completely well, as demonstrated by this wholesome, pleasant but incredibly formulaic and predictable inspirational fact-based sports tale of a self-centered agent who finds personal redemption while conducting a campaign to find a couple of Indian cricket bowlers who can be trained as major-league US baseball pitchers. Designed as a public-relations ploy to save his little firm from bankruptcy, the project turns the protagonist from mere promoter to father figure as he gets attached to the contest’s two winners and literally falls for the girl next door.
Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a cocky fellow who, along with his good-natured partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi), has struck out on his own, leaving the cushy environs of a big agency to found a smaller, self-run firm. But they’ve fallen on hard times, losing their only big prospect to their old bosses, now their chief rivals. Desperate for something to stave off bankruptcy, Bernstein comes up with the idea of the Indian competition, and always a skillful salesman, sells it to a rich entrepreneur named Chang (Tzi Ma). The only fly in the ointment is Chang’s demand that he produce winners trained to make the grade with major-league scouts in a single year’s time.
Despite the implausibility of meeting that requirement, Bernstein is soon off to India with grumpy retired scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin) in tow. With the help of local contact Vivet (Darshan Jariwala) and a hyper little volunteer named Amit (Pitobash), he gets things underway, and after a disastrous start a group of promising candidates emerge. The ultimate winners are two personable poor kids, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), who are quickly brought to California to train with USC pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). And though they’re at first ensconced in a plush hotel, they’re soon rooming, along with Amit, in Bernstein’s bachelor mansion. Though he remains as aloof from them as he can, the three quickly get affectionate attention from Brenda Fenwick (Lake Bell), the med student to whom Bernstein’s rented his guest house.
What follows would be predictable even if this story weren’t based on a real story. Screenwriter Tom McCarthy (who penned—and directed—the Richard Jenkins vehicle, “The Visitor,” which dealt with culture clash in a far more sophisticated way) hits all the familiar beats, and director Craig Gillespie—who made the much quirkier “Lars and the Real Girl”—responds with work that’s able but rather anonymous. The ups and downs not only of the boys’ progress (in coming to terms with American customs as well as the techniques of baseball) offer no more surprises than those that mark the inevitable romance between J.B. and Brenda. The third act brings a seemingly insurmountable setback, which is nonetheless overcome with some help from an unexpected source. Even the obligatory musical montage occurs just where you know it will, and goes on for the appointed length of time. And the happy ending—as well as the pre-credit “what happened next” cards—come on cue.
But despite all that, one has to admit that the movie’s an efficient product that hums along like a well-oiled piece of machinery—the sort of thing that a showman like Bernstein himself would appreciate. Hamm does a committed turn as a Jerry Maguire-like character, even if it’s not much of a stretch for the man who gained fame as Don Draper. Bell makes a likably hard-edged foil for him, and though Pitobash can get a bit irritating as the overly exuberant Amit, Mandvi is a thoroughly winning presence as Ash, while Mittal and especially Sharma are enormously ingratiating as the two unlikely pitching prospects.
The cast is immeasurably strengthened, moreover, by the presence of Paxton and Arkin. The former brings a welcome measure of strength and straightforward gravitas to House. And the latter once again proves himself the gold standard in comic timing, able to save an otherwise mediocre scene with his reading of a simple line like, “You think?” There have been misstep along the way (like a misguided attempt at Inspector Clouseau), but Arkin’s has been an extraordinary career from “The Russians Are Coming” and “Wait Until Dark” onward, and he’s now become the go-to guy for brilliant comedic support.
Technically “Million Dollar Arm” has all the slickness you’d expect of a Disney product, with Gyula Pados’ cinematography in the Indian sequences mimicking Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” hubbub at a somewhat lower level while taking a more subdued approach when the action returns to America. And though there’s no room for a big Bollywood musical number, A.R. Rahman’s score certainly brings a lot of color to the mix.
The result is bound to be an innocuous crowd-pleaser, though the picture carries an aura of calculation that’s as obvious as that of Bernstein’s original “Million Dollar Arm” project. You can’t escape the sneaking suspicion that in fashioning this picture, the Disney folk were thinking primarily in global marketing terms. After all, the prospect of a more than a billion prospective moviegoers looking to see their local heroes make good is pretty enticing.