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Million Dollar Arm

By Piers Marchant Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published May 16, 2014 at 2:15 a.m.

Million Dollar Arm

82 Cast: Jon Hamm, Alan Arkin, Aasif Mandvi, Lake Bell, Madhur Mittal, Suraj Sharma, Pitobash

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rating: PG, for mild language and some suggestive content

Running time: 124 minutes

A few years ago, a failed sports agent named J.B. Bernstein, who had left his parent agency to strike out on his own with disastrous results, cultivated the idea that Major League Baseball could find a completely new source of untapped pitching talent in Cricket-mad India.

To prove his theory, he created the Million Dollar Arm contest, crisscrossing the country in hopes of finding enough talented young Indian athletes to compete against each other, wherein the two winners would head to America and a chance at a big league contract. The result was something of a multicultural circus, with the two eventual winners coming to the U.S. and training diligently for several months before their major league tryout, and sports media falling all over itself for the engaging human interest story.

In short, it was the perfect sort of vehicle for Disney's soft-core sports drama division, whose catalog of fact-based films (Remember the Titans, Glory Road, The Rookie, et al.) presents a highly complementary corporate synergy of sports edutainment and social uplift. Naturally, this film version cuts some drastic corners to achieve its necessary narrative harmony, and it tends to reduce all but the two white protagonists to little more than cartoon cutouts, but it does so in the name of unobtrusive geniality.

As such, there have to be tried and true character arcs amongst the general inspiration, so we have J.B. (Jon Hamm) start the film as a callous, self-centered dealmaker, driving around in a Porsche and, as his comely bungalow tenant Brenda (Lake Bell, nothing short of adorable) points out, "putting the deal ahead of people." When he first arrives in India and meets with his small production team, this quintessential hard-driving American whose relentless push and focus leave little room for emotional concerns is confounded by the seeming inefficiencies of the Indian way of life.

Naturally, too, the aforementioned beautiful tenant becomes his eventual love interest and soul talisman, befriending the two scared young men, Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma), along with their translator, Amit (Pitobash), J.B. brings back with him from their home country. Over the course of their training, the boys learn how to eat pizza, speak colloquial English, and rudimentarily play baseball, and they, in turn, help teach "Mr. J.B., Sir" how to be a decent, caring human being. It's smiles and hugs all around, except for the nagging sense that in rushing this story into Disney's airtight box of inspiration, director Craig Gillespie, working from a screenplay by Thomas McCarthy, has lost a lot of what might have made the story truly poignant and genuinely moving.

As it is, it hits all the necessary plot beats like a Swiss clock (the boys fail; hope is lost; then restored; then, they have one. last. chance. to. make. good.) and stokes the fires of multiculturalism, but it reduces the Indian characters to little more than lovable mascots to their own story. Instead, we have yet another tale of the great white man, bestowing hope on the primitives as they, in turn, put him in greater contact with his lost human soul. On their first night in Los Angeles, the boys get tossed from the plush hotel J.B. has put them in because they can't figure out how to work the elevator, and end up living at J.B.'s swinging bachelor mansion, watching TV and innocently courting Brenda on their host's behalf. Indeed, the boys are shown to be so humble, religious and innocent, they couldn't be more harmless if they were eunuchs.

And when the final moment of triumph comes, it begins with a dozen reaction shots of all the primary characters, milking every possible drop of heart-swooning drama before cutting to its postscripts. (Noteworthy point: The boys were actually picked up by the Pirates, but to this point, have never pitched in the bigs.)

It's vaguely amusing and innocuous enough, but for Disney's ever-present positive mandate -- like Annette Bening's deranged real-estate agent character from American Beauty, spewing forth life and career affirmations in the face of everything that might be undermining her -- which robs the film of much of the inner life of any of its characters. For J.B. (now married to Brenda), it must be gratifying in a way to have the story of your life presented to you on the lush big screen, Hollywood stars courageously portraying you and your loved ones to a packed and cheering audience, if only the result didn't summarize your essence to such a fixed narrative point. If only your life couldn't be reduced to such an exercise in perfect branding control.

MovieStyle on 05/16/2014

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