Barely About Baseball

Million Dollar Arm is another Disney feel-good sports film

The day after the sad-sack Cleveland Browns drafted Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel last week, something remarkable happened: The team sold 1,500 new season tickets. Since returning to the NFL in 1999, the Browns—one of only four teams to never play in a Super Bowl—have been one of the worst franchises in the league.

Even Browns fans love a good story, however. Manziel provides plenty of story and, at least in the short term, that moves plenty of tickets.

Nobody knows the appeal of a good story better than J.B. Bernstein. A sports marketer turned agent, Bernstein went looking for that next big thing when traditional resources dried up. The idea hit him: What if you could bring a cricket player into Major League Baseball? Although the throwing motion for a bowler in cricket is vastly different than a major league pitcher's, just think of the new fan base. An Indian pitcher would open that country to American baseball the way Yao Ming opened China to the NBA.

Million Dollar Arm traces the unlikely but true story of Bernstein (Jon Hamm) finding and training two prospects to become major league pitchers. The Feel-Good Sports Movie is something of a cottage industry for Disney; ads for this film even call out previous successes like Miracle, Remember the Titans and The Rookie. This one grazes the same pasture, which, depending on your perspective, can be a good thing or just really boring.

As presented here, Bernstein's career was on the ropes prior to launching his publicity machine around two Indian pitchers. Out of sheer desperation, he embarked on this idea, largely on his own, and experienced plenty of fish-out-of-water moments as he toured India scoping talent. To generate interest, he attached a million-dollar prize to the contest, which in poverty-stricken parts of India, brought out just about everything you could imagine. Despite a slow start, Bernstein eventually found a couple of prospects who, with no baseball training, could throw a strike in the 85-mph range. That's not good enough for the majors, but it's a decent foundation.

Bernstein is an agent, not a baseball expert, so to narrow the field he leans on the decades of experience of Ray (Alan Arkin), a grizzled scout who sleeps through most of the tryouts but has a keen ear for the speed of a pitch. It's played for laughs, which Arkin's hangdog expression generally ensures anyway.

The prospects have similar stories. Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) could use the money to help their families, and they have raw athletic talent. As they transition to Southern California to begin a year of training that will culminate in a tryout for MLB teams, there are obvious changes. They miss their families and they become more Westernized.

This is racing to a conclusion you can probably guess, so Million Dollar Arm takes the scenic route to get there. There's a budding romance between Bernstein and a tenant in his guest house (Lake Bell) and the film spends plenty of time focusing on Bernstein trying to salvage his business in other ways. There's comic relief, too, thanks largely to a translator from India who comes along for the ride. But it all comes back to these pitchers and this one chance.

Million Dollar Arm really isn't a baseball movie. There's no on-field action outside of a few pitching drills, and you don't have to be a fan to get the gist of it. That's by design, as is everything Disney does, of course. It's a human-interest story, and on that basis, it's perfectly acceptable and palatable. There's nothing great here but it's never an out-and-out bore.

About the only things interesting about it, once you're familiar with the unusual story at its center, are the people in key positions. Jon Hamm isn't exactly known as Mr. Family Friendly, but Don Draper won't last forever and this is probably a look into his future prospects. Thomas McCarthy wrote the indie flicks The Station Agent and The Visitor, and his script keeps the movie from losing its way when others like it always do. Behind the camera is Craig Gillespie, probably the strangest pairing in the bunch: He rose to prominence directing Lars and the Real Girl with Ryan Gosling and recently piloted the remake of Fright Night.

This earnest, safe flick seems like a highly unlikely place for all three guys to land, all things considered. Maybe they're just like Cleveland Browns fans and can't resist the tug of a nice story, no matter how empty that story might ultimately be.

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