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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Million Dollar Arm Review: Throws a Wild Pitch in Key Innings

Million Dollar Arm wants to inspire you. Here's why it doesn't fully accomplish its goal.

Review by: Matt Cummings
The story of baseball has matured over the years, once a white-only game then a highly-inclusive one made up of players from all over the world. But in the feel-good Million Dollar Arm, we learn that the final destination isn't as important as the journey, even if the story doesn't quite get that message quite right.

As a sports agent, JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) could once sell ice to an Eskimo. His slick-talking style yielded representation of former players Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, making him a star in a league filled with them. Unfortunately, JB's current effort to strike out on his own hasn't produced the same fruit. Stuck in front of his television after a failed negotiation, JB learns about the game of Crickett and soon realizes that India might be the last untamed resource for professional baseball players. He journeys there under a groundswell of support, discovering local fireballers Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal). But, their assimilation into US culture is rough going, filled with social faux pas and high expectations from pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton). As the boys undergo a makeover, JB also realizes that he too needs to change if he is to remain on top, while trying to win the heart of med student Brenda (Lake Bell).

Million tries so hard to be inspirational while lodging stinging criticisms against sports agents and the business itself that it ends up doing neither particularly well. It's great to see Rinku and Dinesh come to America to play baseball, and it's also interesting to see how Bernstein massages the various teams while dealing with strong-willed and egotistical players who expect him to produce upon their every wish. Yet, the rest of it results in an odd mix that sometimes feels shoehorned and Frankensteined. Sharma and Mittal are enjoyable to watch in a very innocent way as they react to their newfound love for American food and the pressures of representing their country at the highest level. Hamm is serviceable as Bernstein, trading in his Don Draper suit for an LA ballcap without doing anything different with the role. Hamm can and should be playing in more robust roles, but here he does show (at times) what he can do if given enough meat on the bone. Bell as the moral anchor is totally dispensable, neither gaining nor losing our interest yet failing to inhabit the role, as does Alan Arkin as a retired scout. But perhaps the best performance here is Paxton - his Mr. Miyagi is both comforting and honest, acting as yet another moral anchor for JB as both struggle to shape their two pristine pieces of cloth into fine clothing.

We're not sure if this is Director Craig Gillespie's fault for failing to get the most out of his actors or Editor Tatiana S. Riegel for trying to balance competing stories. Either way, one can see most of this story develop within the first few minutes, as JB goes on both a professional and personal journey to right his fledgling company and disintegrating career. This year's Draft Day took on the business primarily, only suffering a reality check near the end. We knew how the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 would evolve, but its rich storytelling and strong acting troupe made all the difference. Million doesn't use all of its assets as well, but it does open one's eyes to the difficult conditions in India and the enormous pressures inherent in the business of today's sports.  In short, there's a reason why it didn't make it into our May Preview article.

We'd recommend watching Million Dollar Arm only after you see 42, and then only after you've seen a dozen other 2014 films first, including the slightly better Draft Day. Million has been smartly programmed next to explosions and giant monsters, so it should draft a decent crowd in the short term. Whether it survives beyond that is improbable, but anything can happen these days. After all, Singh is still playing for the Pirates.

Million Dollar Arm is rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content and has a runtime of 120 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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