Niagara Gazette

May 13, 2014

CALLERI: New movie attempts to bridge cultures on the playing field

Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — “Million Dollar Arm” is loosely based on the true story of an arrogant sports agent (seriously, is there any other kind), who needs a career boost of his own. He’s relentlessly smug, deeply dismissive of the attractive woman who lives next door to him, and is facing bankruptcy. So what does he do? He comes up with a gimmick he thinks will be his salvation.

An idea for a movie should be substantial, and even if some of what occurs in the baseball-oriented “Million Dollar Arm” did happen, the gimmick involved doesn’t hit a home run. In fact, it settles for being a single.

The agent, known as JB and played by Jon Hamm, thinks he’s found the solution to his problems among cricket players in India, so he goes there hoping to find someone who can throw a baseball – of course, none of the cricket players has ever held one. JB wants to stage a competition television show, offering $100,000 to the winner and the chance to go to the United States and play major league baseball.

The film rolls along in predictable fashion. There is nothing fresh or interesting about watching this American in India. For JB, the food is smelly, the people are smelly, and the streets are smelly. Every condescendingly repugnant stereotype about India you can imagine is hurled at the audience.

This is less a fish-out-of-water movie than it is a moderately cloddish dolt barnstorming his way through a deeply-rooted culture movie.

Once in India, JB finds his baseball prospects, two young men who return with him to the U.S. They are amazed and astonished by what they encounter because, well you know, in the film, India is such a backwards place, where nothing works, and there are no links to the outside world. The good-natured hopefuls are caricaturized as innocents in awe of every single thing America has to offer.

“Million Dollar Arm” feels like something made in the 1950s, when folks in the U.S. wore blinders to block out the world around them. This is supposed to be a family picture, but it’s too dull to engage children. Every cliche, not only about India, but also about baseball, is pounded into your brain, a sense of familiarity that will soon bore adults.

We begin with the curmudgeonly baseball scout, played by Alan Arkin, who really needs to stop accepting these rumpled parts. Then there’s the coach (Bill Paxton), whose every sentence sounds like wisdom from Yoda. And what would an alleged baseball comedy be without goofy players and goofier hitting and throwing? How many training montages were there in the movie? Too many. They turned what should have been a peppy 100-minute feature into a 125-minute endurance test.

As for romance, the film tiptoes around the subject as if babies really do come from storks. Remember that woman next door? I felt sorry for actress Lake Bell, who had to create a character out of virtually nothing. Does the Disney Company, which made the movie, fear interesting women?

Another problem with “Million Dollar Arm” is that JB naively believes that if he can get his cricket players signed to major league contracts, he can sell a billion baseball hats in India, which would never happen. I wondered if the agent upon which JB is based really did think that. It’s an inane reason for carrying out his master plan.

“Million Dollar Arm” is directed by Craig Gillespie, who doesn’t have the knack for making scenes in which more than a few people appear come alive. He’s better at quirky and off-beat, which is why his “Lars And The Real Girl” is so interesting.

Regarding the character of JB, screenwriter Thomas McCarthy doesn’t make him nasty enough, so that when he does become more humble, the changeover feels less dramatic than it should. McCarthy’s cliché-riddled script is weak and rather unfortunate, especially when you consider that the other better movies he’s written, such as “The Station Agent,” which he also directed, are so accomplished and free of stereotypes.

“Million Dollar Arm” never soars. It lacks focus and should have concentrated more on the young men from India. Yes, they do face prejudice. The picture makes you think you’ve seen it before, which you have, especially when it was called “Jerry Maguire,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Rookie,” “Moneyball,” “The Bad News Bears,” “The Blind Side,” or “Invincible.”

The people behind the movie would like you to think they’ve made a feel-good film, but they haven’t. You feel sort of not so bad. The actual real-life ending works against it.

Hollywood has fictionalized thousands of true stories, so why Disney didn’t order a more energetic ending is anyone’s guess. Is this aspect of the agent’s life truly worthy of a full-length biographical motion picture? Not really.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.