By Susan JAMES
Full disclosure: I lived in India for several years. The sound of a sitar or a camera panning across an orange sunset behind the Taj Mahal can make me cry. So I was predisposed to like Disney’s new family, feel good film “Million Dollar Arm.” But here’s the good part: You don’t have to be an India wallah to like this movie. Based on a true story, writer Thomas McCarthy and director Craig Gillespie have woven an engaging tale of two Cinderfellers from India whose sporting prowess propels them to the big time as MLB pitchers in the USA.
The mastermind behind the idea of an India draft is J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a sports agent whose agency is having severe cash flow problems. Up until now J.B. and his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) have done very well for themselves. J.B. lives in an upscale L.A. designer home, dates statuesque models and drives a spiffy blue Porsche. But times are tough and when a deal he was depending on falls through, he’s frantic to find something to keep his business afloat. A televised cricket game from India gives him the idea of recruiting a young bowler and turning him into a major league baseball star. With funding from the all-business Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma), J.B. heads off to India to find some talent to promote. As he soon discovers, India is a whole different world.
Traveling around the north of the country, J.B. arranges a competition called the “Million Dollar Arm” where competitors show up to demonstrate their pitching skills and compete for a cash prize and a trip to the U.S. The ultimate winners of the competition are Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), two young guys from Lucknow whose pitching styles couldn’t be more different. Mr. Chang has given J.B. a year to turn them into major league pitchers. Can he possibly succeed?
Anyone who’s ever seen a sports movie, from “Bad News Bears” to “Draft Day,” knows how this plot goes down. The athletes/coach/team come in as underdogs. They fail miserably. They want to give up. Someone gives them a pep talk. More failure. More pep talks. Rousing music. Final hit/kick/throw. Screaming crowds. Hats, gloves, whatever thrown in the air. Victory. The plot line is never in doubt but this script is tight and the acting is good. Hamm plays J.B. halfway between raging jerk and almost human. Fortunately for the film, J.B. finds that all the way human is the better choice.
J.B.’s two protégés, played by Sharma, who starred in “Life of Pi,” and Mittal, who co-starred in “Slumdog Millionaire,” are terrific. They strike just the right notes of gifted athletes only barely aware of their gifts who are struggling to survive in a world that has morphed overnight from village India to downtown L.A. Bill Paxton, who plays the USC coach who takes on their training, and the inimitable Alan Arkin as a baseball scout, are also impressive.
You know where the story is going to end up from the beginning scenes but like an unexpected journey down the Grand Trunk Road, the one that crosses the breadth of India, getting there is the best part of the adventure.
See you at the movies!