Memorable baseball movies are always about so much more than that game played on a diamond. Disney’s Million Dollar Arm enters that fray with the true story of JB Bernstein. He is a sports agent who finds himself in the bottom of the ninth with two outs when it comes to his business.
He is out of money. He is out of clients. He needs a grand slam. What he finds is not only thinking outside the box, it's downright revolutionary.
Jon Hamm is Bernstein, and as Million Dollar Arm starts, director Craig Gillespie firmly establishes the agent’s situation. He and his partner Aash (an awesome Aasif Mandvi) are about to have to close their doors. A potential football superstar has signed with another agency and their business death knell is about to sound.
One night he is flipping channels and on one network is a cricket game from India. To say that the fans are rabid is a gross understatement. On another channel is an America reality TV competition. It hits him like a Nolan Ryan fastball. He will go to India and set up a reality competition in hopes of finding a cricket player who can be trained to be the next great Major League Baseball pitcher. Can you imagine how much could be made from adding a billion new fans to America's pastime?
As the Million Dollar Arm trailer shows, he heads to India with a retired scout (a brilliant Alan Arkin) and has mixed results, but eventually finds Rinku (Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, Slumdog Millionaire).
Gillespie does a fantastic job (with Thomas McCarthy’s script) of balancing the two worlds. He shoots the Indian sequences with a love and reverence for the land, its peoples, customs, and yes, even its problems. Those Indian scenes were filmed in some of the most densely populated cities in that country and must have been a supreme challenge to shoot. Yet, they are captured with such beauty that the viewer will completely want to visit the country after seeing the film!
Then, Gillespie has to have Bernstein bring Rinku and Dinesh back to Los Angeles where they will train with Tom House (a phenomenal baseball coach at USC, played sublimely by Bill Paxton). Now we have a classic fish out of water story, but there is so much more.
See, Bernstein is not the nicest guy around. He has someone who is renting his guest house (Lake Bell), who continually calls him on it. Yet, he doesn’t change.
Bernstein doesn’t seem to grasp that these boys are beyond homesick and also astoundingly lost in this country. And through the perfect pacing set forth by Gillespie and the immense talent showcased by Hamm in a career-best performance, this film becomes a redemption story about a man who finds himself, despite himself.
The journey is inspiring for the audience on so many levels. The Indian cast brings a heart and sincerity to their roles. Bell is brilliant as the person who contributes largely to having Bernstein’s moral compass altered. And Paxton and Arkin are delightful as a one-two punch of baseball experts.
But, our Million Dollar Arm review has to state that this is the Jon Hamm show. Actors dream of a character arc like the one in this film. And the fact that this is a true story and that to this day there is still a yearly Million Dollar Arm contest in India adds a layer of resonance to the film that will make it unforgettable over time.
Is it one of our 11 best baseball movies of all time? Not quite, but give its emotional power time to simmer and history may put it there before too long.