Million Dollar Arm is the kind of sports movie that crams everything subject-specific into quick-cut montages to make room for maudlin drama and fish-out-of-water comedy—a baseball flick where no one is actually shown playing baseball. It offers plenty of sideline pleasures—like seeing Jon Hamm do his disaffected Don Draper stare while watching Susan Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent—and a gaping hole in its center. Into this hole it tosses redemption arcs, romantic comedy cutesiness, business rivalry subplots—anything, as long as it isn’t directly related to sports.
Hamm’s character, J.B. Bernstein, is a real person, and the plot of Million Dollar Arm—which is based on Bernstein’s involvement with a reality TV competition in India to find pitchers and turn them into MLB prospects—is more or less true. As the movie opens, JB and his partner, Ash (Aasif Mandvi), are struggling to nab new talent. When they score a meeting with billionaire investor William Chang (Tzi Ma), who wants to market American sports in untapped Asian markets, J.B. comes up with the idea of scouting cricket bowlers in India for the major leagues. (As is often the case, truth is kookier than dramatization; it was Chang who came up with the idea, because he wanted to prove his hypothesis that great baseball players were like X-Men mutants, with a certain percentage born into every population.)
The episodic first act, which follows J.B. around India, intersperses travelogue-like widescreen vistas with the kind of advertising and business humor familiar from countless ’50s comedies. But, after J.B. finds his prospects—Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), neither of them cricket bowlers—and returns to Los Angeles, the movie immediately slips into the kind of unlikely-bond-helps-grump-soften-up scenario that is screenwriter Tom McCarthy’s stock-in-trade.
McCarthy, best known for writing and directing The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win, specializes in accidental-family stories with grouchy character-actor leads and quirky hooks; what keeps his work from descending into treacle is his generous handling of the cast, a holdover from his own background as an actor. Unfortunately, director Craig Gillespie (Lars And The Real Girl) doesn’t place the same emphasis on performance. Despite a strong, game cast (which also includes Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, and Bill Paxton, the latter perfectly cast as pitcher-turned-pitching-guru Tom House), Gillespie never manages to overcome the flaws of McCarthy’s writing, which tends to pile on characters and stock situations. The most hackneyed standbys of coming-to-America humor—the discovery of pizza, confusion about relationships and religions—get trotted out, and the selfish J.B. has to repeatedly redeem himself (to Ash, Rinku, Dinesh, and Brenda, the generic love interest played by Bell) through symbolic gestures. The lessons are broad, familiar, and largely un-compelling.