‘Million Dollar Arm:’ Film Review

In sports, execution is often everything,

There are certain situations in all sports where everybody in the stadium knows what’s coming next, yet the play is so flawlessly executed by an individual player or an entire team that it doesn’t matter that the opposition knew what to expect.  The Vince Lombardi Green Bay Packers were not a team that fooled you.  They were so well coached that it was hard to stop them, even when the other team knew the sweep was coming right at them.

Genre filmmaking works in a very similar way.  When we go to see a horror film or a romantic comedy or superhero picture, there are story structures and plot elements we expect to see.  We know the rom com couple will likely loathe each other intensely when they first meet.  We know that some unsuspecting, promiscuous, blonde girl will be the first person the axe-wielding psycho takes out.  We know the superhero film will climax with a bombastic and overwrought set piece that’s usually the weakest action sequence in the film.  It can be very predictable, but if it’s well executed, it doesn’t really matter.  The movie works in spite of its formulaic trappings, and, often, the audience is offended when the formula they expected gets subverted.

Sports movies are no different.  Since Rocky Balboa first went to battle with Apollo Creed back in 1976, we know we are likely going to see athletes who are ridiculous longshots and lots of training montages.  We know we should expect some sort of showdown involving a Big Game at the end.  And, since sports movies are often based on true stories, we often know the outcomes before we even buy a ticket.  It’s all about the execution.  We know, for instance, that the 1980 US Hockey Team will beat the Russians at Lake Placid and go on to improbably win the gold medal.  What makes Miracle such a special movie is the way it give us insight into the mental workings of coach Herb Brooks and is a showcase for what a criminally underrated actor Kurt Russell is.  The US/Russia game sequence is a stirring bit of cinema even though everybody in the audience knows what’s going to happen before it does.

Execution is everything.

In the case of Disney’s new baseball picture, Million Dollar Arm, the execution is almost always spot on.  If you’ve seen a movie before, you will likely be able to predict the outcome well in advance.  Will the emotionally unavailable sports agent be able to learn that vulnerability makes him better at both life and his job?  Sorry for the spoiler alter, people who live in a cave, but of course he will.  But, Dinsey has put together an interesting team behind the camera who are able to find some unusual currents in all the formula.

John Hamm plays JB Bernstein, a once successful sports agent whose business is struggling since he left the big firm he worked for with his partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show).  When a coveted NFL prospect signs with another agency, a desperate JB hatches a plan.  While watching cricket and Britain’s Got Talent on TV (Yes, Susan Boyle makes an appearance.) JB comes with the idea for Million Dollar Arm, an Indian reality television show that will audition cricket bowlers for a chance to win $1 million dollars and get an MLB tryout.  Soon, JB is traveling through remote villages and bustling urban centers in India looking for a new pitching phenom.

He finds two.

Rinku (Suraj Sharma, he played the title character in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, he played the doomed older brother in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.) are soon whisked away to Los Angeles, where they will be trained by USC baseball coach Tom House (Bill Paxton).  They are joined in LA by Amit (the Bollywood actor Pitobash), a young Indian baseball enthusiast who talks his way into the group as JB’s assistant who will be able to translate English for the pitchers.  

After a mishap in their hotel, JB must move the kids into his own home.  Will he start to see them as more than just a last ditch attempt to save his flailing business?  Will Brenda (Lake Bell), the attractive, young doctor who rents JB’s guest house, get him to open up emotionally?  Will these two charming Indian kids be able to learn American baseball (and English) in about ten months?  It’s based on a true story, remember.

The formula is pretty obvious (This is, after all, a PG-rated Disney movie aimed at families.), but the execution is pretty smooth.  The movie was directed by Craig Gillespie, who also directed the oddball Ryan Gosling film Lars and the Real Girl.  It was written by writer-director Tom McCarthy, an indie filmmaker who has given us gems like The Station Agent and The Visitor.  McCarthy also wrote and directed another terrific sports movie, the high school wrestling film Win Win.  If you haven’t seen Win Win, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.  These are indie filmmakers working in a much more mainstream circumstance, but they do bring a strong sense of character and a keen eye for casting.  The actors are all quite good, and, even though the outcome of the story seems wildly unlikely, it actually did happen.

The film isn’t without its issues.  We are often told things and not shown them.  A lot of JB’s transformation from selfish bachelor to emotionally available surrogate family man isn’t demonstrated in his behavior so much as him giving speeches about it.  The two Indian boys are winning screen presences, but they go from not being able to even play catch to bringing the high heat with very little screen time devoted to that development.  A skirmish with other USC ballplayers is talked about but never shown.  Bill Paxton has aged into an incredibly interesting character actor, and I would have loved to have seen more of him.  I wanted to see more of these kids developing as athletes.  It’s integral to the story, and it gets cheated.  Most big-budget movies tend to be bloated and overly long and tedious.  I know Disney doesn’t want a family film to run two and a half hours, but I feel like Million Dollar Arm lost some details in the editing suite that would have made it even better.

Sports films either make it or break it in their third acts, and Million Dollar Arm’s third act really delivers.  The obligatory stirring speech here is very, very stirring, and the Big Game showdown is unconventional but kicks real ass.  A well-contested game often comes down to a last second shot at the buzzer.  Million Dollar Arm nails its last-second buzzer beater. 

It’s a crowd pleaser.

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