Million Dollar Arm (dir. Craig Gillespie, 2014)
by Christopher B. Barnett
Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm centers on sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) — a hard-drivin’, fast-livin’ founder of a small firm on the verge of bankruptcy. Desperate, Bernstein tries to think outside the box: if he can’t win American clients, why not pursue an untapped market, where the competition for top athletes is less fierce? With this in mind, he reasons that India, with its massive population and passion for cricket, might harbor untold baseball prospects. After securing funding from an investor, he stages a contest in India, dubbing it “Million Dollar Arm.” After a rocky start, replete with the stereotypical challenges of adapting to a foreign environment, Bernstein finally hits on a pair of bona fide prospects, left-handed pitcher Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and right-hander Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal). Yet, upon returning to Los Angeles, a number of problems surface. Singh and Patel are from the Indian countryside, and they, too, struggle to adapt to an alien environment. Meanwhile, Bernstein is faced with the unsavory responsibility of caring for these two young men. Will he leave them to sink or swim on their own? Or will he choose to nurture them, even if it means compromising his otherwise unencumbered pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness?
A Disney production, which is not too proud to borrow from other like-minded films, Million Dollar Arm ends exactly as one might expect. Bernstein succumbs to the role of father-figure, and, despite trials and tribulations, he guides Singh and Patel to baseball success. He even finds time to settle down with a “nice” girl, Brenda (Lake Bell), who slowly but surely convinces his id to yield to his superego. It is, as far as it goes, a solid contribution to the sports-movie genre, though it does not approach the gravitas of 2008’s Sugar — an excellent baseball film, which views the sport’s international footprint in more nuanced fashion.
And yet, to be fair, moments of depth are not utterly lacking in Million Dollar Arm. The film is particularly critical of Bernstein’s lifestyle. Overworked and self-centered, he is a version of Hamm’s most famous role to date — that of Don Draper on AMC’s celebrated TV series, Mad Men. Thus the film’s “happy ending” is an inversion of what we come to expect: it’s not Bernstein who “saves” Singh and Patel but vice versa. They teach him, in short, to care for something beyond himself. And, in an especially surprising undercurrent, the film even suggests that Bernstein’s hardened secularism is at once metaphysically narrow and existentially unfulfilling. In one scene, Singh and Patel indicate that they have been praying for help as they transition to life in America. Bernstein snaps that he prefers work to prayer, and the young men are nonplussed — a pithy summary of the “American Dream” and how it often looks to outsiders. This motif is reprised later in the film, when Singh and Patel insist on praying before a meal. Now, however, Bernstein acquiesces to their request, and it is no accident that this scene is treated as a turning point. Bernstein finally realizes that it is better to give than to take, better to open up than to close off, better to sacrifice for a family than to labor for oneself.
Of course, of course, of course: Million Dollar Arm is neither invested enough nor sufficiently subtle to fully probe these points. Nothing is going to stop it from providing a satisfying payoff, and nothing is going to prevent it from repeating a number of shopworn formulas (the East is “spiritual,” the West “intellectual;” the East is “friendly,” the West “competitive;” and so on). But you could do a lot worse on a cold, rainy Saturday morning — which is when I watched it with my kids — and it may even give you something to think about in turn.