Million Dollar Arm
Jon Hamm has yet had to carry a movie. Thus far his roles have been supporting - a heel in "Bridesmaids," a lawyer in "Howl," an unhappy married 30-something in "Friends With Kids" (directed and co-starring his girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt); "Million Dollar Arm" marks his leading role debut. This may seem an odd choice for the actor who has perfected a unique kind of loathsome that is "Mad Men’s" Don Draper: an uplifting Disney movie about an ambitious sports agent who comes up with an elaborate ploy to save his sagging business. Yet the role of JB Bernstein (a real-life agent) is a perfect fit.
Hamm portrays a man on a brink of mid-life crisis. His dream of running his own agency is about to go south, but he’s inventive enough to come up with a solution: find athletes from India, turn them into baseball players to market the sport to the unclaimed Indian market. His logic being that since Cricket is such a huge sport in that country, finding athletes that can throw baseballs shouldn’t be all that difficult. To do so he’ll run a contest with a prize of a $100,000 with a promise of an audition before major league scouts. Think "Slumdog Millionaire" meets "Moneyball" laced with "The Bad New Bears."
There isn’t anything terribly original in Tom McCarthy’s script - been here, seen this many times before. What it does well is repackage the story of an improbable underdog competing in the big time with a 21st century multi-cultural awareness. McCarthy also falls back on a favorite sports movie meme: the softening of a hard-edged agent through the help of a woman (Lake Bell as literally the girl next door). It’s so by-the-numbers that it shouldn’t work; but director Craig Gillespie has such a good rapport with his actors and paces the story for maximum emotional kick that it’s difficult not to succumb to its schmaltzy final act.
Gillespie previously directed "Lars and the Real Girl," a deft, touching comedy that told a more improbable story in which Ryan Gosling fell in love with his life-sized love doll. It resonated far beyond its far-fetched premise. He works with far more conventional material in "Million Dollar Arm" - this is a Disney product with all that implies; but he infuses the template with a contemporary awareness so that the film’s climax - in which Bernstein succeeds at the cost of dumping his Indian pitchers - gives the story weight and tension. This backstage baseball story doesn’t end with a big game, rather a hastily arranged audition in which the two Indian recruits Rinku Singh ("Life of Pi’s" Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire’s "Madhur Mittal) must sink or swim; and the moment has genuine tension. Bernstein gets behind his players with the risk of losing everything. It’s the oldest cliché in the baseball movie playbook, but Gillespie makes it works.