As I was watching the new Walt Disney Studios film Million Dollar Arm, I found myself flashing back to the glorious days in my childhood when I would sit in front of the family television on Sunday nights eagerly anticipating the next episode of Wonderful World of Disney.
I was never disappointed.
I loved Wonderful World of Disney with its simple yet delightful stories, terrific characters, and images that would stay with me long after the episode had ended.
Million Dollar Arm, while tackling slightly more mature material than one would ever see back then on Sunday nights, reminded me a lot of those nights because it's a simple yet inspiring film filled with characters you enjoy and care about and scene after scene that will make you laugh, maybe make you cry, and will most assuredly make you feel a whole lot better as you leave the theater than you did when you entered.
The film stars Jon Hamm (television's Mad Men) as J.B. Bernstein, a once hot shot sports agent whose decision to break out on his own isn't exactly going as planned and he's on the verge of losing his business when he stumbles across an idea after discussing the sport of cricket with a colleague (Aasif Mandvi, The Daily Show) to travel to India, hold a contest to find a couple of cricket bowlers, and turn them into major league pitchers.
Why India? It was considered the last major untapped market with a potential of one billion fans.
Oh yeah, and he'll do it within the year.
Here's the real kicker. Million Dollar Arm is based upon the true stories of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two now Major League Baseball pitchers who really did win a reality contest in India and get "discovered" on their way to the big leagues and, yes, before that contest they really didn't play baseball. If you watch Million Dollar Arm with the awareness that all of this did really happen, and the film's script by Thomas McCarthy (Win Win, The Station Agent) sticks mighty close to the truth, then it gives the film an even more authentic sense of inspiration and heart.
While it could be seen as a tad risky to center a wide release film here in the U.S. about two young men from India, as a company Disney has always been one to celebrate diversity and to figure out exactly how to market it. Of course, it also helps that the two men are played by the immensely talented Suraj Sharma as Rinku and Madhur Mittal as Dinesh. Sharma is practically a Hollywood newcomer having had his debut in 2012's Life of Pi, while the slightly more experienced Mittal is mostly known to American audiences for his work in Slumdog Millionaire.
The film is directed by Craig Gillespie, who has a gift for creating cultures on film as evidenced in such films as his Fright Night remake, the nothing short of incredible Lars and the Real Girl, and even the rather surprisingly substantial Mr. Woodcock. Million Dollar Arm humorously yet respectfully portrays the "fish out of water" angle both when Bernstein goes to India and when he returns with both Rinku and Dinesh. While some filmmakers would have gone for easy laughs and familiar cultural stereotypes, Gillespie and McCarthy combine to make us laugh with Rinku and Dinesh without ever laughing at them.
The story that unfolds in Million Dollar Arm won't particularly surprise you, but for the most part you'll be so busy being entertained you won't mind that you pretty much know exactly what's going to happen. While one could argue that a touch more focus on "the boys," as J.B. calls them, would have added to the film's energy it's worth nothing that Hamm's work here is terrific and it's refreshing to have a performance in a film such as this one that actually delves just a bit deeper into the character.
I would almost be willing to argue that Million Dollar Arm is at its most mesmerizing in its early stages once Bernstein arrives in India and Gyula Pados' lensing beautifully captures India in a way seldom seen by Americans. It is to Gillespie's credit that he manages to capture the humor in these scenes without compromising the nation's reverence for family and community. I found myself both laughing and deeply touched throughout these scenes.
Once everyone is back stateside, Million Dollar Arm slows down briefly as Bernstein goes into full-on narcissist mode for a bit and both Rinku and Dinesh are bogged down by a rather relentless training regimen that borders on harsh as Bernstein becomes more and more obsessed with the financial aspects of the deal and the two young men become more and more homesick.
While it may sound like the film itself gets bogged down, things keep going at a pleasant enough clip and there are enough supporting characters that infuse the film with rich humanity that the film never actually turns dark. Across the board, Million Dollar Arm is one of the most perfectly cast Disney films in quite some time. In addition to terrific performances from Hamm, Sharma, and Mittal, Lake Bell adds a thick layer of compassion as Brenda, a medical student who rents out Bernstein's cottage house and whose presence as a love interest is almost overshadowed by her depth of caring for Rinku and Dinesh. Bill Paxton, who is way under-utilized these days, is absolutely terrific as a USC pitching coach known for getting rather amazing results yet who proves to be equally compassionate. Likewise, Alan Arkin shows up as a retired scout who agrees to first travel to India to help identify the potential players then continues to be a key figure throughout the film.
Million Dollar Arm is a good-hearted, inspiring and genuinely feel good film with a story so awesome that it's hard to believe that it's true (but it is!). Produced by the same team that brought us Miracle, Invincible, Secretariat, and The Rookie, Million Dollar Arm is the kind of film that reminds you exactly why Disney has built its studio on telling stories that matter and make you feel better about life.
What else can I say? Million Dollar Arm hits a home run of heart and humor.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic