I’m going to cut right to the chase and admit that my least favorite film genre is the sports drama. There’s something about the rah-rah, feel good, go team mentality behind these films that just drives me crazy. Throw in the absolute predictability, along with the forced life lessons and sentimentality, and I just can’t get on board. Going into a film such as Million Dollar Arm with that mentality was a recipe for disaster. I know my bias, and was determined to stay as objective as possible. I don’t know if it was this forced objectivity, or if the film actually stands out above the rest, but I was shocked to discover as the film went on that I was actually, GASP, enjoying myself.
True, the film follows the expected story beats, and everybody does learn valuable life lessons throughout. However, what really makes this film work is that it’s not actually about the sports aspect of the story. This is a film about characters, with sports as a backdrop. Jon Hamm plays JB Bernstein, a shallow caricature of a man (despite being based on a real person) desperate to save his failing career in the sports industry. This desperation leads him to create a reality television competition, Million Dollar Arm, in which Indian cricket players would attempt to win the chance to travel to America to become a Major League pitcher.
The sequences in India really stand out, having been shot on location. The filmmakers captured the chaotic nature of this lifestyle, often in very humorous ways. This dirty, crowded setting creates a backdrop far more compelling, especially on a visual level, than most films of this sort. It’s only a small portion of the film set in India, but these sequences really stand out, elevating the material around it.
Casting is great across the board, with Jon Hamm playing a variation of Mad Men’s Don Draper just different enough to not seem like an outright copy. As the film progresses, and he becomes more likeable, Hamm believably sheds the image he is almost always associated with, bringing a humanity to his portrayal that I found highly endearing. Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal stand out as Rinku and Dinesh, the two Indians he brings back to America. They bring a humanity to the roles, overwhelmed with this lifestyle that is such an extreme from that they have always known. While not the greatest performance ever, Lake Bell is also a welcome addition to the cast, holding her own as the potential love interest for Bernstein.
Yes, the film is predictable, and yes, everybody learns and grows by the end. There are moments of forced drama where it is obvious the characters are about to overcome their dilemmas, and all story beats are completely telegraphed throughout. However, the ensemble and unique backdrop make this film something special.
The Bonus Features are about what you’d expect in a film such as this. As it is based on a true story, there is a feature where the real people who inspired the story discuss the actual events from the perspective of those who lived it. There is also a feature on the actors having to learn to believably throw a baseball, and there is a look at the making of the terrific score by A.R. Rahman, who also did the fantastic score to Slumdog Millionaire. Rounding out the extras are an alternate ending, deleted scenes, and outtakes.
Far from a great movie, this is a highly entertaining movie, which is far more than I was anticipating. Not necessarily worth a purchase, this would be a great rental, and a terrific film to watch with the whole family. It’s wholesome Disney fun that is both inspiring and entertaining.