Bats are made for swinging, pennants are made for winning, and strikeouts are made to thrill you (unless you’re Crash Davis in Bull Durham; then they’re fascist). But the real lifeblood of the baseball movie — of sports movies in general, for that matter — is redemption.
Million Dollar Arm is all about redemption, though there may be less baseball in it than you might expect. This clean-cut movie tells the story of an ambitious sports agent (Jon Hamm) who must learn that some things are more important than money or fame (also, that dating models means you have no soul). But before you roll your eyes and groan about sentimentality, know that the film is based on a true story, and many of the unlikely events actually happened. That knowledge goes a long way toward making you more forgiving of the movie’s foregone conclusion.
Hamm plays agent J.B. Bernstein, a wheeler-dealer whose company is down on its luck. He needs a Big Idea to save it and gets one after a conversation about cricket with his colleague (Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show). The plan: They’ll stage a competition across India, seeking cricket players to try out their pitching skills. The winners will be flown to the United States, trained by a pro (Bill Paxton) and earn an audience with a major league baseball scout. Bernstein will get the glory, new clients and open up a lucrative market for what he hopes will be an eternally grateful Major League Baseball.
Nothing goes quite as planned, but you’ll hardly be surprised by what happens. J.B. will be overwhelmed by the noise and traffic and bureaucracy of India at first, then come to appreciate its unique beauty. He’ll find his winners (Suraj Shama of Life of Pi and Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire) and get them to America, where fish-out-of-water comedy and drama will ensue. J.B. will soon start to think more about responsibility than success, and the doctor-in-training who’s renting his backyard apartment (Lake Bell) will stop looking like a tenant and more like a leading lady. The signs are not hard to read: Happy ending ahead.
But due to its good humor and terrific story, Million Dollar Arm is always engaging; its power lies in its feel-good charm. Its formula is a proven winner, and the movie has a formidable team behind it. The producers are responsible for Miracle and The Rookie, two rousing, crowd-pleasing sports films. Screenwriter Thomas McCarthy wrote Win Win, The Visitor and The Station Agent. Director Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock) helmed the quirky Lars and the Real Girl. Their teamwork runs smoothly, and the cast is amiable and funny. The movie is warm and sweet and surprisingly short of speeches extolling the magic of baseball while still reminding us why our national pastime always looks so appealing in the movies.
Cast: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal.
Director: Craig Gillespie.
Screenwriter: Thomas McCarthy.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 124 minutes. Mild language, some suggestive content. Opens Friday May 16 at area theaters.