Disney has a long-standing history of producing sports movies based on true stories. With a catalog that includes “Cool Runnings,” “Remember The Titans,” “The Rookie,” “Miracle” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” all of these films chronicle underdogs overcoming tremendous odds. Their newest offering, “Million Dollar Arm,” continues this tradition while also covering new ground. While most baseball movies cover stories about players or teams making a comeback or resurgence that seemed impossible, “Million Dollar Arm” follows complete outsiders to the game of baseball as they develop from beginners to big league contenders. It is a story that no one would have ever believed could come true.
After sports agent J.B. Bernstein fails to make any big signings with his independent firm, he comes up with an idea to look for new athletes in India while watching a game of cricket on television. In a country where baseball is basically unknown, what if he could find a cricket bowler and turn him into a professional pitcher? The idea could potentially attract a new crowd from a population of 1.1 billion people, bringing out competitors from a pool of untapped talent, creating a demand for merchandise and of course, generating more profit. With the financial backing of San Francisco Giants owner William Chang, J.B. decides to create a reality show in India called “The Million Dollar Arm.” The contestants would compete for who is the fastest and most accurate pitcher, with a chance to win $100,000 and the opportunity to train in the US. The deal with Mr. Chang also stipulates that within one year, the first and second place winners will qualify for a big league tryout. Enlisting the help of baseball scout Ray Poitevint, they travel all over India and watch thousands of contestants try (and usually fail) to make the next round of the contest. It is not until they visit an academy that they discover Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two track and field athletes that are able to throw hard and accurately. After winning the contest, J.B. brings Rinku and Dinesh back to California to begin their training at USC with pitching coach Tom House, where they have to develop years of skill and experience in only a few months. Can they accomplish the impossible?
“Million Dollar Arm” stars Golden Globe Winner Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”) as J.B. Bernstein, Suraj Sharma (“Life Of Pi”) as Rinku Singh and Maddur Mittal (“Slumdog Millionaire”) as Dinesh Patel. The film has a strong ensemble cast, including Aasif Mandvi as co-agent Ash Vasudevan; Lake Bell as Brenda; Alan Arkin as Ray Poitevint; Bill Baxton as Tom House; Pitobash as Amit; Darshan Jariwala as Vivek; and Tzi Ma as William Chang. The film was directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars And The Real Girl”).
WHAT WORKED: “Million Dollar Arm” has a very different feel from Disney’s previous sports films, simply because of the culture and location. I felt as though the film made a serious effort to be authentic and realistic. A majority of the dialogue spoken by the Indian characters is in Hindi, and like 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” the film does not shy away from giving an honest look at the poverty-stricken country. Both Rinku and Dinesh leave their homes and their families, a move that takes an emotional toll as they not only try to learn a game they have never played before, but also adapt to a culture completely unfamiliar to them in California. As an ex-baseball player, I also found that the training sequences and coaching methods displayed were very accurate. The drills may look ridiculous to some, but Disney clearly did their research and made sure these types of details were true to form. I also felt that the acting was overall very good and genuine. Lake Bell was particularly charming in her role as J.B.’s tenant and love interest, Brenda. Her outside view on the situation allows her to give an unbiased opinion, which helps motivate Rinku and Dinesh, while also making J.B. realize his faults. Another actor that stood out was Pitobash, who played the players’ enthusiastic translator Amit. His character came into play by accident, a man that J.B. meets in India that volunteers to help the contest because of his love for baseball. His comedic timing and willingness to help makes him standout in most scenes.
WHAT DID NOT WORK: While this may be an “issue” that is completely out of anyone’s control, J.B. Bernstein is not represented as a nice person in the film. Jon Hamm did a fine job of portraying him, but his character is self absorbed and controlling, putting business first and everything else second. This type of thinking does lead to some self discovery later down the road as J.B. realizes the reasons behind his failures, both on a personal and professional level. But it makes the audience feel a bit disconnected from the lead character. I did not feel myself rooting for his success. Rather I was rooting for Rinku and Dinesh’s success, and perhaps that was the point. The film also ends a bit abruptly, though it has a much different story to follow than the other Disney sports films. There is no rival to overcome, no final match or championship game to win. Just a tryout and the chance for Rinku and Dinesh to prove themselves. It left me wanting more, but I enjoyed the fact that the movie used real footage to end the film, as well as documented footage throughout the credits to show even more about the real people.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Although falling short of the sheer emotion and triumph displayed in some of Disney’s previous films like “Remember The Titans” and “Miracle,” “Million Dollar Arm” is another well done and likable film for the catalog. It has a big heart, and takes a risk in covering characters that are not American and speak no English (at first), which could be a limiting factor for families. But I think taking the grittier and more realistic approach lends to the movie’s unique factor. We get to watch these characters develop athletically, emotionally and personally. And J.B. Bernstein also has his own personal victory, realizing that there is more to life than just work. Although the movie centers around baseball, one does not need to be a fan to enjoy it.