Disney’s live-action sports films have a tried and true formula. Million Dollar Arm, the newest story of ordinary guys trying out for the big leagues, is in the same division as efforts like The Rookie and Invincible. Like those emotionally charged dramas, the film is as safe as it surefire entertainment. The twist here is that the two players we follow on the road from poverty to the pitching mound did not know how to play baseball, or even how to wear a glove. Their names are Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel and they were plucked from obscurity in India to travel to the United States and finesse their throwing technique in a bid to become major league pitchers.
The biggest issue with Arm is its lack of reach; screenwriter Thomas McCarthy decides to structure the story more around the ambitious super agent, J.B. Bernstein (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) than the Indian ballplayers. McCarthy is best known for writing and directing an underdog sports film (Win Win) and a tale of bridging cultural divides (The Visitor). Although he seems like the perfect scribe for this story, he centers the film on Bernstein, who treats his South Asian clients more as “investments” than people with families and a say in their own future.
Bernstein is an independent agent hoping to save his struggling business after he fails to land a hotshot client. After watching the quick release of cricket bowlers while channel surfing, he tries to tap into a sports market that could be lucrative and bring in 1.1 billion more fans: India. The agent risks his business on a $10,000 competition, entitled Million Dollar Arm, to find young Indian athletes who knew how to bowl (cricket’s term for throwing) fast and accurately. Much to the chagrin of his business partner, Ash (Aasif Mandvi, a comic relief pitcher), their firm is running out of money to spend on this gamble – they have one year to make good on their deal, or their business could implode.
As soon as Million Dollar Arm finds Rinku and Dinesh (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, best known for his role as older Salim in Slumdog Millionaire), the story begins to segue into their struggle to leave their homeland behind for a fast-paced world of aggressive training and cultural differences. Joining the two athletes is translator Amir Rohan (Indian comedy actor Pitobash), who gets to teach the players English while learning how to coach. Moments where Rinku, Dinesh and Amir are awed by aspects of Western civilization that they are not used to – getting pizza delivered, walking up escalators – illuminate the contrasts in the lives of the films’ characters. It’s just a shame that McCarthy did not put more emphasis on their harrowing upbringing, as it would have allowed the film to study the juxtaposition between the wealthy agent and the stealthy athletes even further.
Even though Sharma and Mittal spoke English in their prior, Oscar-winning worldwide hits, McCarthy’s script wisely lets them begin speaking in Hindi before moving them, slowly, into English. A few more scenes with Rinku and Dinesh, both of whom were javelin medalists and who grew up in rural villages, would have brought more humanity to the second half of Million Dollar Arm, which is a tad Bernstein-heavy. A romance between the ruthless agent and Brenda, a nurse residing in a small room in his backyard that Lake Bell portrays, further orients the drama toward Bernstein’s journey from stern businessman to a supportive coach figure.
There are a few too many moments that focus on Bernstein’s “first-world problems,” making us root for the Porsche-driving agent with a lavish house – one that Rinku, Dinesh and Amir stare at as if it were a palace – when our thoughts should be with the characters who have known poverty their whole life. (Imagine Slumdog Millionaire putting more of an emphasis on Irrfan Kahn’s interrogating police officer, instead of Jamal.) When the story shifts to the Indian athletes worrying about their families and becoming insecure of their progress with throwing and fielding, Million Dollar Arm really finds its footing and momentum.
Despite some issues with perspective, Disney’s newest sports drama is a crowd-pleaser, with an ample amount of humour and pathos. Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) edits the sequences of the Million Dollar Arm competition in Mumbai and the try-outs for the American press near the end with what the characters would call “juice.” These scenes build suspense for the athlete’s release of the ball while building character as we watch Rinku and Dinesh’s face quiver and stance calm as they realize what this moment means to them. A score from Slumdog Millionaire’s A.R. Rahman makes these sequences pop with even more colour and feeling.
Hamm is well suited for the role of a man who one character says “needs no help with pitching,” a sly reference to the actor’s role as marketing guru Don Draper on television, and although Million Dollar Arm spends too much time with J.B.’s privilege and sometimes simplifies the journey of the two Indian pitchers, it is an incredibly inspiring underdog story. Disney’s newest sports effort is full of authentic performances, especially the turns from its Indian and Indian-American cast, and rarely becomes overly sappy. Just try not to root for these enduring characters.