India. Trust me here. It’s the most important single thing to think about when you contemplate the consequences of the foolproof crowd-pleaser “Million Dollar Arm.” It’s far more important than baseball at the movies and far more important, too, than Jon Hamm’s first surefire success in a starring, film-carrying vehicle at your friendly local movie theater.
We are, it’s sometimes said, only a hop, skip and a salaam away from being inundated by films with India as a location or theme or in the world-conquering style of India’s Bollywood movies. (Of which we got an irresistible taste in the Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire” and, some say, even the magical “Moulin Rouge.”)
“Million Dollar Arm” is about a hard-charging sports agent named J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm in “Mad Men” haircut) who leaves the monolithic “Sportscorp” that has made him obscenely well-off (he dates models and drives a blue Porsche convertible) to go independent, only to flounder without clients and income until his cricket-loving partner from India (“it relaxes me” whenever he dials it up on the tube, he says) inadvertently gives him an idea.
To wit: Why not see if the motion used by “bowlers” in cricket in India can be sufficiently modified to create a major league hurler in American baseball?
Stop snickering. The movie is based on a real story. Ask the Pittsburgh Pirates.
We’re way beyond “Jerry Maguire” here.
Why do such a far-fetched thing, you ask? Because there are almost a billion people in India. That’s why. That’s one hell of a demographic to infect with baseball fever. It is, therefore, a gigantic population just begging to be brought into the revenue-exploding world of American major league baseball.
Which is the exact same reason why this movie was made, as heartwarming as it will be for the American audiences that made such a smash out of Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side.”
So the movie sends Hamm to teeming, mind-boggling India on this quest. It’s corny and written by the numbers by Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and part of the team that wrote the sublime animated film “Up”). But then the reason that a talented actor/writer like McCarthy would write a script by the numbers in the first place is that all manner of warm fuzzy feelings are virtually guaranteed in a large audience.
It’s enjoyably so, to be sure, and every bit of success it has here in America has a good chance to be made and bettered in the gigantic filmgoing apparatus that is modern India.
Which makes this weekend a major turning point in American film audiences facing head-on the fact that they are now sharing American movies – completely – with the world. India, and other parts of Asia and the world once ruled by the cricket-loving Brits – are crucial to “Million Dollar Arm” in almost the same way Japan and the rest of Asia are integral to what is bound to be the massive success of “Godzilla.”
Think of “Million Dollar Arm” as a combination of “The Blind Side,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” that stunning Disney concoction that almost succeeded in getting the world to believe that the whole point of Walt Disney’s astonishingly successful empire wasn’t money but, in fact, childhood joy and adult healing.
As J.B. Bernstein invents it, “Million Dollar Arm,” in fact, becomes a contest in India, to try to find major league baseball pitchers who’ll get American tryouts. In on the Quixotic effort are a college baseball coach with theories to prove (Bill Paxton) and an aged, retired major league scout who’d rather sleep than do anything else (the always delightful Alan Arkin).
What they find are two sweet kids from the sticks in India (Madhur Mittal, Suraj Sharma), who, in fact, both hate cricket but who can throw a baseball with vague accuracy at speeds over 80 mph. As their overseer and translator, Bernstein hires a baseball-loving Indian kid (Pitobash).
All of this jumps across the ocean to America and proceeds almost exactly the way you think it will, including the heart-melting romance of the cynical sports agent with the beautiful medical intern who rents out the rear cottage on his elaborate coastal property (the always-welcome Lake Bell).
A “by-the-numbers” movie has slightly better than by-the-numbers possibilities when it’s written by a writer like McCarthy and directed by a director like Craig Gillespie (who gave the world “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Mr. Woodcock” and guided a few episodes of Showtime’s “The United States of Tara”).
And so this is a nice surefire crowd-pleaser with just enough of a little movie underdog quality about it to make you forget, ever-so-briefly that it comes from the biggest of Big Dog Sentiment Factories, Disney.
I have no idea why Hamm sounds so hoarse in so many scenes here, but whatever he did to aggravate his health in making it went to a pretty good cause.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM
Starring: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Pitobash
Director: Craig Gillespie
Running time: 120 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for mild language and suggestiveness.
The Lowdown: A high-living sports agent goes independent and tries to find a major league baseball hurler among India’s cricketeers.