Like baseball, baseball movies, especially Disney ones, play the percentages. They often stick within a formulaic comfort zone.
Fortunately for “Million Dollar Arm,” the percentages work out just fine. The biopic is charming and compelling, even when you know what pitch is coming. Jon Hamm stars as the real-life JB Bernstein, a slick sports agent looking to salvage his failing agency. While watching TV with business partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi), JB flips to a cricket game. They reason that among the 1.2 billion people in India there must be some cricket player who can throw a baseball 90 mph. Imagine the potential for new clients and fans.
After securing an investor, JB heads to India to spearhead a national talent search. Two winners emerge: lefty Rinku (Suraj Sharma from “Life of Pi”) and non-lefty Dinesh (Madhur Mittal from “Slumdog Millionaire”). These young men have never traveled outside their village, don’t speak any English, have never seen a baseball game and don’t even play cricket. Yet they are strong athletes who can hurl hard enough to warrant a tryout. JB brings them and interpreter Amit (comedian Pitobash Tripathy) back to L.A., even though the constant attention these newcomers demand is cramping his model-dating, Porsche-driving lifestyle. The duo train with the University of Southern California team and its pitching guru (an unusually low-key Bill Paxton). They also bond with the tenant who lives in JB’s adjacent property, Brenda (a welcome Lake Bell), a saucy med student who can’t help but make googly eyes with her handsome landlord. Can these ill-equipped young men get whipped into shape in time for a pro tryout broadcast live to their home country?
As a scout for the Seattle Mariners warns JB, “This is Major League Baseball. This is not a social experiment.”
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and writer Tom McCarthy (who penned “Win Win” and “Up” but is best known for portraying Dr. Bob in “Meet the Parents”) opt for the fish-out-of-water approach. The first part of the picture finds JB navigating India’s overcrowded, provincial, horn-honking, bribe-oiled society. As a colorful travelogue, this stuff works quite well despite its unavoidably xenophobic slant. The second part swaps fishes to present Rinku and Dinesh’s immersion into Los Angeles and its accompanying excesses. This plays less successfully because we’re not always seeing it from the Indian perspective.
For instance, we don’t witness the guys take a party-hearty swim in a neighbor’s fountain, we instead see JB’s reaction to the news. The boys are apparently teased by USC ballplayers, but we learn about this only because their coach mentions it in passing to JB. What a wasted opportunity for drama. “Million Dollar Arm” may have been hamstrung by its PG rating … and its studio, so the film doesn’t dig deeper into a tale that was inevitably grittier than the one recounted here. But as with other absorbing family movies based on true sports stories — “The Rookie” and “Secretariat” come to mind — a gifted cast can offset potentially watered-down material. Ultimately, “Million Dollar Arm” comes down to satisfying audience expectations. We want to see JB rewarded for his brazen scheme. We want to see him hook up with Brenda. Most of all, we want to see these nice Indian guys finish first. Or simply be allowed to finish at all.
‘MILLION DOLLAR ARM’
* * 1/2
Rated PG | Time: 2:04