MILLION DOLLAR ARM
Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Jon Hamm, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton
MPAA Rating: (for mild language and some suggestive content)
Running Time: 2:04
Release Date: 5/16/14
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 15, 2014
Million Dollar Arm tells the story of the first two baseball players from India to sign with a major league ball club. They maybe had heard of the sport of baseball before entering a televised talent competition in the country set up by an American sports agent. Almost impossibly, they learned the game well enough to play professionally in less than a year's time. In case there's any doubt, yes, the movie believes the character most worthy of attention in this story is the agent.
It's of little surprise that the movie has its priorities so out of sort. Given that this is a Hollywood production of a story that doesn't really have an American character at its center, it's kind of a go-to gimmick that the story must have an American forced into it, whether it makes any sense or not.
Hence, we have the story of true underdogs who have the opportunity to rise out of poverty supplanted by the tale of an underdog agent who needs to keep his independent firm afloat so that he might keep his big house. Forget how the young men overcome the intense pressure of the task at hand, what's really important is whether or not the agent will learn to stop his womanizing ways with models in order to settle down with a soon-to-be doctor who happens to look like a model herself. The story is ultimately about the agent learning that this situation isn't entirely about him. The movie itself never learns that lesson.
This isn't really a case of cultural insensitivity but of cultural ignorance and apathy. The movie doesn't set out to undermine the characters who should be true protagonists of this story, although the way the up-and-coming players and their interpreter are treated primarily as comic relief once they reach the United States is borderline. It simply doesn't care or care to know about them outside the realm of how they affect the life of the man who, out of the goodness of his heart (read: as a way to financially benefit), saved them from their circumstances for a potential glory of which they previously would never have dreamed.
Isn't that at least an equal insult to these two? Their story matters only in smaller moments, like a pair of climactic tryouts in front of major league scouts, and even then, the movie keeps cutting back to J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), the agent, looking distraught by or proud of his finds. Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), the prospects, are really nothing more than a MacGuffin when one whittles the story down to its core. Everyone around them cares to a certain degree whether or not they succeed, but screenwriter Thomas McCarthy keeps their success or failure securely tied to J.B.'s dilemma.
Take how the screenplay dismisses any and all conflict that might make Rinku and Dinesh more than an opportunity for J.B. When we first meet him, Dinesh is working for his father (Yashwant Joshi). The impression is that the father needs Dinesh, but as soon as the teenager gets the chance to go to the United States, his father gives his blessing. Rinku starts even less developed. Just before leaving, J.B. visits the boys' families, and Rinku's mother expresses worry at her son leaving. J.B. assures her (poorly, it should be added), and that ends anything about Rinku's life outside of baseball.
It's possible that any external conflict for these two characters could be as clichéd as the rest of the movie, which is full of montages of the boys' improvement and fish-out-of-water humor, but the result of rejecting even the possibility of conflict is that they have no existence outside of baseball and J.B. J.B., meanwhile, has plenty of things to worry about beyond Rinku and Dinesh. He is trying to sign a professional football player. He and his employees have to keep the business going with the additional expenses of mounting a reality TV show in India. He doesn't want a regular family life but finds himself attracted to Brenda (Lake Bell), the resident physician who lives in the bungalow on his property. She, at least, is not the typical love interest for this kind of story. She's a straight-shooter who sees through J.B. selfishness; she makes it clear that she doesn't care one way or the other if he changes his ways.
From the small details to the big ones, we know exactly what's going to happen here. When Alan Arkin shows up as the disinterested scout for the television show who can hear the speed of each and every pitch, we await the moment when he perks up after one of the boys pitches (Arkin is fine, and so is Bill Paxton as the Rinku and Dinesh's pitching coach). We sense the ups and downs coming in this formulaic script, and in making the grave error of swapping two worthwhile protagonists for a commonplace one, Million Dollar Arm ensures we really don't care.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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