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2014-05-22

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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'Million Dollar Arm' strikes out

Walt Disney Pictures

By Giancarlo Buonomo, Summer Managing Arts Editor
Published May 21, 2014

Americans are suckers for movies about dogs, boxers and baseball. Especially baseball, because it’s “our thing,” as American as apple pie and pre-emptive strikes. Classics like “Field of Dreams” and “The Sandlot” effortlessly combine jargon and romance into a film that is both about baseball and, at the same time, not baseball. They remind us why we love the game so much, but also why we love so many other things.

The newest addition to the baseball movie genre is “Million Dollar Arm,” directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and written by Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”). But “Million Dollar Arm,” a well shot, well acted, biopic about the first two Indian men to be signed by a Major League organization, is no classic. Despite its subject matter, it’s not really a baseball movie. You won’t be reminded why you love baseball, and you won’t be reminded of why you love anything else, besides maybe money.

Sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm, “The Town”) and his partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi, “The Internship”) have struck it out on their own, and they’re striking out. Having lost the chance to represent star linebacker Popo Vanuatu, they make the ballsy decision to “tap” the unexploited potential of Indians in Major League Baseball. J.B. travels to India to set up a nationwide contest called “Million Dollar Arm,” where young men will demonstrate their throwing arms, and the winners will get shipped back to Los Angeles for training and an eventual tryout with major league teams.

The first part of the movie depicts J.B.’s search across India to find his prospects. This whole episode is a montage of clichéd “white guy goes to India for the first time” tropes. J.B. gets food poisoning. He gets stuck in traffic. The t-shirt manufacturer must be bribed. A family drives by on a motorbike clutching a goat. Despite all of this, J.B. finally finds two young men: Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal, “Slumdog Millionaire”) and Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi”). Neither boy plays cricket, nor particularly likes it, but they can throw a baseball over 80 miles per hour.

Now, this indifferent treatment of India would be, if not forgiven, at least tempered if the rest of the movie were a deep character analysis of Dinesh and Rinku, and their undoubtedly confusing journey to America to learn a sport they’ve never played before. But the focus is all on J.B. Forced to allow the boys and their interpreter/baseball enthusiast Amit (Pitobash Tripathy, “Shor in the City”) to live in his home after they unwittingly set off the hotel elevator’s fire alarm, J.B. becomes both coach and surrogate mother hen to a trio of clumsy chicks. This is where the film really becomes a Disneyfied version of “Jerry Maguire.” Popo comes calling again, but J.B. loses him when he is forced to leave their meeting to fetch Dinesh, Rinku and Amit, who got drunk for the first time. Popo is Cush, the boys Rod Tidwell. There’s even a Dorothy Boyd, this time in the form of J.B.’s neighbor Brenda (Lake Bell, “No Strings Attached”), who teaches him to stop being such a heartless wanker.

But whereas “Jerry Maguire” is all about how “show me the money” is the wrong attitude, “Million Dollar Arm” shamelessly embraces it. Instead of leading you to root for Dinesh and Rinku to become great baseball players, the film leads you to root for J.B. to succeed in creating the illusion that Dinesh and Rinku can play baseball. We’re never given an idea of why Dinesh and Rinku are playing baseball, other than the antiquated assumption that anything is better than living in India. Mittal and Sharma’s talents are wasted on the characters, because all they seem to do is sheepishly say “Sorry Mr. J.B. Sir,” whenever they throw a wild pitch or otherwise endanger J.B.’s agenda.

The film definitely falters on the human side of things, in part because it flat out fails in its portrayal of baseball. It gives the impression that all Rinku and Dinesh need to do is throw a ball about 90 miles per hour over the plate a few times, and that will tempt MLB teams to sign them. Being able to throw a ball fast and over the plate is as much of an indication of one becoming pitcher as the ability to play “Hot Cross Buns” is of becoming a musician. So what are we left with, after the film cuts to some archival footage of the real Dinesh and Rinku getting signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and J.B. and Brenda marrying? A reminder of the marketing power of exploitation, and that a heartwarming story is only heartwarming if it has a handsome price tag.


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