Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm 

Disney swings for the cheap seats.

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The cynicism that runs through a sports agent’s quest to mine India’s untapped baseball market is rather similar to the one guiding the film version that tells his story. While the movie wants us to walk away from Million Dollar Arm feeling the dramatic uplift of two boys from India making the big time of professional baseball, the story it tells is really about an L.A. power broker who triumphs over mild adversity to save his lucrative business and overcomes the burden of having to sublet the apartment next to his posh home.

Jon Hamm (Mad Men) is J.B. Bernstein, who is struggling to keep his boutique agency afloat when he has an epiphany while flipping channels between a singing contest and an Indian cricket match. The result is ‘Million Dollar Arm,’ a competition that Bernstein will bring to India in a quest to find suitable candidates for Major League Baseball tryouts in the U.S.

Put another way, he’s going to exploit the hopes and dreams of a great many young men and their families looking for a way out of poverty. And if you think that’s an overstatement or simplification or even ingratitude, there’s a transparently patronizing act Bernstein takes near the end of the film to absolve himself of his guilt over what he’s perpetrated. The film never disguises that Bernstein sees the two prospects that “win” his sponsored competition as his meal ticket. Sure, he’s got a heart, but it seems to work only when under duress. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the ugly side of business. Except Million Dollar Arm expects us to cheer at what we’re seeing — the exaltation of our cultural capital and the quest for the rich to get richer — like a fan in the stands.

Hamm, looking very Don Draper-ish in his suits and ties, is compelling but hardly charming in the role, a testament to how well he understands and inhabits his subject. Bernstein is a selfish prick who gets easily irritated — at his guests Dinesh and Rinku, and at the doctor who rents from him, played by the gorgeous, funny and charismatic Lake Bell (In a World). This warts-and-all portrayal appears calculated to avoid charges of dishonesty — a point in its favor — but it only makes us wish the movie were more about those boys and not Bernstein. The decision to tell the story from the agent's point of view means we don’t get to see the point of view of the two young men he’s uprooted from India so they can spend their days learning how to throw a baseball at the University of Southern California under the tutelage of a refreshingly low-key Bill Paxton.

Million Dollar Arm is entertaining, and mostly well acted and directed, with a you-are-there feel. As a piece of craftsmanship, it's impressive and sometimes stirring. But it tells the wrong story, and thus we feel reservations about liking it. When the movie finally decides to focus on Rinku and Dinesh, it does so during a credits montage, which feels like even more of a slight than not including it at all.


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